Ernie the Attorney : searching for truth & justice (in an unjust world)
Updated: 6/5/2003; 10:29:43 PM.


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Monday, March 18, 2002

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

--George Bernard Shaw

11:09:18 PM    

I've said that law is basically processing information.  Someone rightly pointed out that strategy is more important in the law.  That's true.  Perhaps I've overemphasized the role of technology. Computers and fancy software will not automatically make lawyers more articulate, or more responsive to their clients' needs.  Nor will it make judges more insightful.

But there is a place for technology.  Yet it doesn't seem to be catching on the way that it should in the practice of law.  Why?

Well, the billable hour is a problem on the defense side.  As Jim Magee rightly points out, this is something that the legal profession talks about a great deal, but there is an institutional resistance to change.  Lawyers say the billable hour is dead, but talk is cheap.  When will there be some action?

I don't know.  But I'm sure that stock brokers never thought that clients would move their business to a discount house that simply executed trades.  But we lawyers are not like stock brokers, right?  We practice a learned profession.  It takes years to learn the art of lawyering.  Or does it?

Author Michael Lewis (of Liar's Poker fame) has a new book (Next: The Future Just Happened) that examines how the Internet is breaking down the old barriers.  In a recent television special based on the book he showed his father (who is an attorney in New Orleans) how to surf the Internet.  Then he showed him a web site where people answered legal questions online.  They stared at the online posting of one expert in criminal law.  Lewis' dad, who is a well-respected lawyer here in New Orleans, was appalled that lawyers would be answering legal questions online for people they had never met... but he admitted that the answers appeared to be correct. 

But, after a commercial break, it was revealed that the person answering the questions was not a lawyer.  In fact, the person wasn't even eligible to vote.  The person posting the reply that Lewis' dad had conceded was correct was a sixteen year old boy, who had no legal experience whatsoever and no exposure to anyone who knew anything about the law.   Neither of the kids' parents had even been to college.  When asked how he acquired his skill (which was prodigious -- he was the most popular respondent to legal questions on that site) he said that he had a knack of knowing the right answer because "he watched a lot of lawyer shows on TV."   Okay. 

What does that tell you?  If you want to believe that the law is a learned profession and that it will never succumb to market forces that will devalue the importance of legal advice by making it widely available (anyone heard of Napster?), then that story tells you nothing.  But, you've got to wonder.  Did the Feudal Lords envision a time when people would live freely outside the Castle Walls?  Probably not.

Still, I agree that technology alone is not going to make the practice of law better.  But the force of the Internet has wrought a lot of change, and, as far as I can tell, the sandstorm isn't over.  Clients obviously don't want to hire sixteen year old kids to represent them in court, and we aren't going to have sixteen year olds practicing law over the Internet without a license.  But change is going to happen.  And efficiency is going to matter...whether lawyers want it to or not.

10:42:47 PM    

When Florida Power Corp. fired employees as part of a series of reorganizations in the early 1990s, Wanda Adams and more than 100 other dismissed workers sued. They claimed in a class action that the job cuts violated the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act because the cutbacks had an adverse impact on older workers.   The case will be argued before the United States Supreme Court this Wednesday. [ABA Journal]

9:08:44 AM    

Real estate lawyers may soon being in a position of snitching on clients who are arguably engaged in money laundering, and the reason is that the U.S. Treasury Dept. may issue anti-money laundering guidelines. 

A little-known provision in the USA Patriot Act, passed by Congress in October, requires "financial institutions" to develop anti-money laundering programs. Included in the definition of financial institutions are those involved in real estate closings and settlements.  This may be construed to apply to lawyers, even lawyers with small practices.  If such regulations are passed they might put real estate lawyers between the proverbial "rock and a hard place."  Would they follow the law and report suspicious activity on the part of their client, or would they follow the legal requirement that they keep client confidences secret?

The Treasury Dept has not yet released the regulations so it is premature to speculate as to their actual effect, but there is room for concern. [ABA Journal]

8:54:53 AM    

© Copyright 2003 Ernest Svenson.

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