Why lawyers should consider change—for better or worse

Why lawyers should consider change—for better or worse

For a change, let’s talk about change. I would like to start with one of my favorite statesmen, Sir Winston Churchill, who said, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

Given that the law profession can be a bit conservative, I suppose not too many lawyers are perfect.

Our profession has experienced many changes for better or worse. While in practice for 40-plus years, I never embraced rapid change with joy; I was generally ambivalent toward it. I thought we had it all with the arrival of the sticky note.

However, I was not at the extreme end of the status quo spectrum. I think of the Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office Charles Holland Duell (1898 to 1901), who allegedly said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

Duell would probably have given the Wright brothers a rough time:

“Ahem. Gentlemen, flight has already been invented. Those other brothers, the Montgolfiers, came up with the hot air balloon. They successfully sent up a sheep, a duck and a chicken. What more can your ‘invention’ positively achieve?”

I wouldn’t trust this guy to read my palm. He was certainly no Nostradamus.

Incidentally, Duell, a lawyer, went on to be appointed an appeals court judge in the Washington, D.C., area.

Changes always seem to come with a flip side. I think of the telephone. During the 1970s and 1980s, B.C. (before cellphones), the trial judge would call a recess. This announcement was more like the sound of a racing starter’s pistol. The lawyers would scramble out to the nearby handful of pay phones. We just had to call our offices to see what the next crisis was. Or call a witness to find out why he went missing in action. And there were always more lawyers than pay phones. It was like musical chairs.

And even if you lucked out and got a phone, you still needed dimes. They were in high demand. My main benefactor of dimes if I ran short was the courthouse coffee shop cashier. I recall one, Millie, who with a smile, had the coveted dimes in her hand as she saw me approaching. There were a couple of other less gracious cashiers, such as Clarence, who would snap at the lawyers saying, “Am I the Commerce Bank?” Being in Millie’s good books was almost as important as landing the right judge. Before court, I sometimes wondered who was sitting that day at the cash register.

The problem now as I see it is many lawyers cannot tear themselves away from their mobile devices. On my street there is this millennial lawyer Sidney, who walks his beagle, always chatting on his phone—Sidney, not the beagle. He looks completely oblivious to his surroundings. I hear him bellowing remarks such as, “Fifty grand is a good start,” or “Don’t tell me your client’s well is dry.” I’m sure the beagle feels neglected. I haven’t seen it myself, but it would not surprise me if after doing his business on the sidewalk, the hound would whip out a plastic bag and pick up the goods himself.

And speaking of goods, I think of our Toronto courthouse’s iconic Great Library, built in the 1800s. For decades and into the 1970s to 1980s B.C. (this time, before computers), often when a reported case was successfully appealed, some lawyers would anonymously open the volume containing the trial decision and pencil in something like, “Appeal allowed—March 11, 1973.” This act of kindness saved lawyers from relying on this now-reversed and useless case.

I sometimes wondered whether this news dissemination system was open to sabotage, enabling the noting of fake appeal results. I suppose such saboteurs would be the precursors of today’s trolls.

I will admit I prefer online case research to the work of these pencil phantoms.

Which brings me to social media. I think it is often misused. I do not get excited when I read of some lawyer’s LinkedIn posts announcing, “I am listening to a podcast next Monday afternoon from my mayor about our pothole crisis.”

Thanks for telling me. This was the exact time I was going to catch an online webinar on trial tactics, but now I have an agonizing scheduling conflict.

Which brings me to the Zooms. Thanks to COVID-19, Zoom and similar programs have become a communication lifeline for our profession, enabling education and the justice system to function safely. Though I find it fascinating, I am relieved that I never had to practice law this way.

A while back, our courts issued direction on best practices and etiquette for remote hearings. I found some of the suggestions simplistic and jejune.

For example, one pearl of wisdom is, “Find an appropriate space.” What does that mean? I doubt too many lawyers would, but for this direction, participate in a motion for an injunction while sitting inside Starbucks:

“Your Honor, before I answer your question, I wish to confer with the gentleman next to me sipping his Frappuccino.”

Then, there is some sage tech advice. “Ensure your phone, computer or device is plugged in or charger is handy.” Many lawyers (especially we boomers) may not be tech geeks, but to appreciate that these devices run on electricity, you don’t exactly have to be Thomas Edison.

Another surprising direction suggests you look into the camera while speaking. I needed to hear this sage advice. I don’t know about you, but were it not for this sagacity, I doubt my first inclination would be to speak while crouched under my desk. “Hello, I’m down here.”

The issue I take with this whole direction is that in addition to being trite, it is couched in a mood of solemnity. Are we legal people still taking ourselves a bit too seriously? Some lightening up would be a welcome change. Given the times, it would not detract from the dignity of the justice system were the judges to make some pronouncements with a twinkle in their judicial eyes.

I recall flying on an airline that did not shy away from employing humor. The safety video was a cute cartoon of the seatbelt demo, noting something like, unless you have lived in a cave the last 50 years, you may have recognized this thing as being a seatbelt. You therefore should have some idea how it functions.

I doubt anybody clamored that the airline was not taking safety seriously. Not only did the passengers laugh, but they watched and listened attentively.

I do consider change necessary, but no one dose fits all—especially with technology. Do some changes go over the top? Notwithstanding Churchill’s words about being perfect is to change often, I agree more with the sage comment of Yogi Berra, who said, “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” Actually, I often use this quote in my writings. That’s fine. I see no reasons for this practice to change.

Marcel Strigberger, after 40-plus years of practicing civil litigation in the Toronto area, closed his law office and decided to continue to pursue his humor writing and speaking passions. His just-launched book isBoomers, Zoomers, and Other Oomers: A Boomer-biased Irreverent Perspective on Aging. For more information, visit MarcelsHumour.com and follow him at @MarcelsHumour on Twitter.

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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