Home » Legal Practice » Reflections on the Good Old Days of Legal (Non)Technology

Reflections on the Good Old Days of Legal (Non)Technology

I showed up for work my first day at my law firm–then (and still) one of the largest in the world–in September 1982. I was assigned to a nice 4th floor window office overlooking Connecticut Avenue in D.C., which gave me a great view of the daily protest parades. My technology consisted of: a phone (land line–there was no other kind), a dictating machine, a wall switch to turn the lights on, and some electric sockets to plug in my desk lamp. That was it. My secretary (the term in use then) had all that plus an IBM Selectric typewriter. Virtually all research was done in the library using books. Somewhere in the library there was a dial-up Westlaw terminal and printer. Wow, we had it all.

Somehow, we managed to practice law.

A few years later  we got some newfangled thing called “mag cards,” which allowed our assistants to revise documents by loading a huge stack of floppies into a slot in their IBM typewriters. Soon after that came the first computers. Our firm adopted a Wang system (Wang was one of the leading computer companies in the 1980s, then went bankrupt in 1992) with some kind of intranet e-mail network. Only staff had them–no one could imagine why the attorneys would want or need one.

Somehow, we managed to practice law.

But I wanted one of those things. (If you haven’t caught on by now, I am a tech junkie.) I had moved to the Austin office by then and was put in charge of the summer associate program (a/k/a/ party coordinator–how things change!), so I concocted a total BS story about how I needed a computer at my desk to help me do that. The firm bought it and soon after I had mine, my peers wanted one.  Then I bought an IBM PS/50 for home and figured out how to hook into the firm intranet. I discovered telecommuting! One day I was exchanging e-mails with a colleague about a litigation matter and he said he would rather come down to my office to chat about it.  I waited. Then the e-mail came: “Where the *&%$ are you?” Wow, were we ever wired up!

Somehow, we managed to practice law.

So you get the picture–over time we added cell phones, the Internet, e-mail, souped up Westlaw and Lexis, and all that. Today, as we all know, we are in a law+tech environment that is a universe way from my first day on the job. Indeed, we hear every day about the new “disruptive technologies” creeping into the legal world. But looking back, I have to ask: When were we ever not in an environment of “disruptive technology,” and how has technology made us any better at being lawyers? To be sure, technology advances have improved the speed and efficiency of lawyering, and in the future technology may well improve the accuracy of legal prediction, but I would need to be convinced that it has actually made lawyers better at what really counts about lawyering at the “quantum lawyer” level.

What will legal technology be in 2050? Thinking about what has changed since 1982, I have to believe 2050 will look like science fiction to us today. But unless all lawyering by then is handled by robots, the question I pose is: What will lawyering look like then? Is there something at the core of lawyering that simply does not change as technology changes how we do it? If there is, let’s hang on to it–it’s what makes lawyers lawyers.


  1. Having been pointed here by someone I really respect, I’m delighted to see this line of inquiry. I started in 1978 at a smaller firm (way smaller) that had 2 mag card machines. I had partners who remembered the Xerox copy machine as a major innovation, who knew that cc. meant carbon copy (actually), and who had “secretaries” who had to insert multiple carbon sets into typewriters and manually correct every one whenever they made a mistake typing the original. I remember when “cut and paste” was achieved with scissors and glue sticks! Your objective of finding out what we will always have in common with those who preceded us and those who will follow us while we and they adapt to rapid change is inspirational. It evoked strong memories of practitioners I admired and learned from, some of whom are long gone, and reminded me of my own impulse instilled by them to pass what I learned to those lawyers younger than I with whom I have had the good fortune to work. Good luck on the journey!

    • J.B. Ruhl says:

      Thanks for this, Jim! That’s right–there was no spell check on carbon paper! I do think we ought to distill what lawyering was, is, and always will be independent of technology. Glad others think so too.

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