Is Technology Ruining The Legal Profession for Family Lawyers?

 

Originally published in the Family Law Section Commentator, Summer 2016.

frank.jpgBy Frank P. Remsen, Esq., Tavares, FL

(Editor’s note:  Frank and Eddie met and are brothers in The International Fraternity of Delta Sigma Pi.)

I was asked to write an article relating to technology. But what do I know about technology? Isn’t that why firms, including mine, hire IT guys? After bouncing a few ideas off of the editor, I decided to try and answer this question, “Is technology ruining the legal profession for family lawyers?”

I haven’t been practicing law as long as many of you out there. I am sure there are those that can tell stories of when motions were carved into stone tablets and hand delivered by horse and buggy. However, I can only remember back to the first firm that I worked for. That firm, at the time, was not very technologically advanced. There was no email correspondence. We typed letters on letterhead and mailed or faxed them. Calendaring was done in a big red book with a pencil, not an electronic/online calendar. (Don’t you dare write in the book in pen!) The firm did have a fax machine which was probably the most advanced piece of electronics in the office. Right as I started, the firm got dial up internet on one computer, but that was only used when someone wanted to do research on Westlaw. So with that background in mind, let me try to answer the question.

There is no doubt that technology has improved the practice of family law in many ways. Technology has made the practice more efficient in relation to both time and costs, made the practice more accessible and made many tasks have become easier.

Efficiency is probably one of the most important ways that technology has improved the practice of law. For example, back when there was just the big red calendar book, you would have to go page by page to look for a hearing or a certain appointment. If what you were looking for was in a previous year, you would have to go find the previous red book to look it up. Now, with a few keystrokes, you can search years’ worth of calendar in a few seconds. Client databases make it easy to look up client information extremely fast.

e-Portal filing and email delivery has made the filing process fast and easy, when it works right. No longer do you have to hand deliver that new case to the clerk or mail hundreds of pages of mandatory disclosure documents to opposing counsel for $20.00. Everything can be filed or sent instantly and without postage costs.

Before, you would have to go to the clerk and pay $1.00 per page for copies of documents, even those documents that you filed in the case. Now, in most cases, documents can be printed online free of charge.

Now, almost everything is at your fingertips. Attending Pre-Trial/ Scheduling Conferences is much easier. No longer do you have to say that you didn’t copy your calendar for that far out into the future. Your entire calendar is on your phone/ tablet. Need to look up a statute or rule? A quick search on your phone and you can recite the exact statutory language.

It certainly has made things easier for a lot of attorneys. Thankfully, long gone are the days of having to manually calculate child support, especially cases with multiple children and multiple timesharing schedules. Manually calculating child support five times in one case could be very time consuming. Now, child support calculators do the same tasks in a fraction of the time.

The list of technology advancements and ways in which it has improved the practice of law can go on and on. However, that does not fully address the question. Let’s look at the ways technology has hurt the practice of family law.

The biggest impact technology has had on lawyers is the inner workings of everyone’s fingers. It seems that attorney’s fingers work just fine typing on a keyboard or using a smart phone/ tablet. However, attorney’s fingers no longer work when it comes to dialing a phone. It seems that technology has caused the pointer finger to forget how to dial ten numbers. Honestly, how often do attorneys actually pick up a phone and call each other about their cases. It seems to me that it is far less often than it used to be.

Family attorneys’ livelihoods depend on their ability to communicate. We have to communicate to sell our services to clients. If we don’t communicate well, we don’t get hired. We have to communicate with opposing counsels, mediators and pro-se parties to progress cases and to try to reach amicable settlements. We have to communicate with Judicial Assistants to schedule hearings. We have to communicate with Judges at hearings and trials. In new courtrooms, we even have to communicate with the Deputies/Bailiffs as to where to sit. The list goes on. Yet despite all of the communicating we have to do, the more impersonal and non-verbal it becomes.

Is it a coincidence that the rules and orders more and more are requiring attorneys to meet and/or confer? Attorneys are supposed to make good faith attempts to obtain discovery before filing Motions to Compel. Most Pre-Trial Conference Orders require attorneys to meet and/or confer prior to attendance at the Pre-Trial Conferences. Yet, despite the requirements, it is more and more common that attorneys will send an email stating that this is their good faith effort or that the email shall serve as their conference before the Pre-Trial Conference.

Even clients are becoming more and more impersonal. Many potential clients would rather do phone consultations than meet face to face. I’ve seen attorneys at Final Hearings meeting their clients for the first time. I’ve even heard some attorneys are so good at closing a client that clients will pay by credit card after a phone consultation without having actually met the attorney. I would like those names because I have some swamp land to sell.

Even some Judicial Assistants and Judges are giving up on the personal communication. Many JAs require you to look up hearing times online and email in the request. It seems more and more rare that JAs speak to attorneys or paralegals on the phone. I miss the days when you could talk to the JAs about life and kids and build a repore with them. Even Judges are getting in on this act. I have seen on several occasions a Judge request that the attorneys submit closing arguments in writing, thus depriving everyone in the courtroom of hearing the greatest closing argument ever spoken. At least that’s what I think every time I give a closing. For many clients, they just want closure which trial brings but which can only come from hearing the Judge tell them how things are going to be. However, Judges are more often reserving ruling at trial and submitting written Final Judgments as their ruling (using the attorneys’ submitted Final Judgments as a guide). Rather than articulate the ruling and rationale to the attorneys and clients so that clients understand what the Judge is thinking, they are left to interpret the ruling from the written Final Judgment. The clients are deprived of hearing the inflection in the Judge’s voice, hearing the voice level and tone of the Judge’s words or feeling the heat from the Judge that will hopefully make them a better person or parent.

Technology has further lead to the instant gratification age. Unfortunately in the legal world, instant means conveniently and selectively instant. In the days before email, if you weren’t in the office, the client was fine with a call back the next day. Now, with email on every smartphone, clients expect responses immediately. They don’t care that its 2:00 A.M. or that you are at your child’s school event. The other parent using the wrong laundry detergent is an emergency that needs addressing immediately. Yet, those are the same clients that are sent discovery requests within minutes of receiving them and then are being threatened with Motions to Compel more than 30 days later because they didn’t comply with the requests. E-filing is supposed to make everything run much faster, but have you ever tried to get a summons in one day? Either the clerk will refuse to accept the case that you are walking into the clerk’s office to get an immediate summons, or you will e-file the case and get told that you have to wait several days to be issued the summons when they get to it. It’s always fun to explain to a client that with all the technology available, a clerk’s office can’t or won’t issue a summons immediately so that a party can be served the same day.

I have also seen a trend, more so in younger attorneys, that they have a case of keyboard courage. They advocate hard for their clients in emails and seem like they would be a warrior in the courtroom. Then you see them in person, in action, and they are timid, shy and not anything like their keyboard persona. Family law clients want and need their attorneys to be litigators. They need advocates that will fight for them in trial, if the case can’t be settled. Technology is keeping the younger generation from building the people skills necessary to be a great lawyer.

The iPhone generation is hooked on electronics. Lawyers appear to be no different. Don’t get me wrong, cattle call hearings are so much nicer with Facebook, Candy Crush or other apps to pass the time. But many lawyers have an inability to disconnect from the practice of law. Family law is particularly stressful, which makes decompressing at home so vital. I am sure I am not alone, that when your phone buzzes, you are reading a client’s email, even while lying in bed at night. I take a personal investment in my clients and I want to do the best for them. However, sometimes, the best thing you can do for your clients is to put the phone away, spend time with the family, decompress, and show up refreshed and ready for the next day. There are many other drawbacks SUMMER 2016 COMMENTATOR 41 to technology, such as the exorbitant costs that come with the best computers, best programs, and best computer accessories. There are attorneys who are too dependent on technology and cannot function without it. But for the sake of everyone reading, I don’t want to turn this article into a novel. Is technology ruining the legal profession for family lawyers? I think the jury is still out on this question. If I had to answer the question, I would have to give the typical lawyer answer, “Maybe”. There are definite positives for technology. There are definite negatives against technology. I believe that everyone needs to have a balance. Take advantage of the benefits technology brings. But, don’t let technology take over your life. Remember that law is still a business of people, for people and by people. I wonder if anyone will call me, instead of email me, with feedback on this article.

Frank P. Remsen, Esq. earned his J.D. at St. Thomas University School of Law and owns his own practice in Lake County, Florida. He is admitted to practice law in the state courts of Florida and United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida

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