I was recently speaking to a lawyer, who started practicing law this year, about my legal experiences and my profession so far as a lawyer. I graduated from law school in 2012, so I don’t feel like an old-timer in any way, but I am starting to tell this person how things have changed in the legal profession even in the short period I spent as a practicing attorney. The whole experience has really made me feel like I’m from a different generation to this one, which I hope 33 years old is wrong! Anyway, I first started out as a summer assistant at Biglaw in 2011, so I only have first-hand knowledge of how the law firm has evolved over the past decade. However, the legal profession has progressed a lot in the past ten years and this makes one be cautious about how the legal profession will change in the next decade.
Perhaps the biggest change I have seen in the legal profession recently as a litigant has been the spread of the Electronic Depository Corporation. When I first worked as a summer assistant in 2011, only federal courts in my area had mandatory electronic files for nearly all litigation papers. New Jersey had no electronic filing system in most cases, and New York only had an electronic filing system for a few things. In my early days as a practicing attorney, a lot of time and effort was spent printing and preparing documents for presentation. At one of the companies I worked for, someone would come to our office every day around 3 PM to pick up items that needed to be saved. Additionally, attorneys had to be careful about registering when receiving papers and needing to present papers correctly so that they could be used and reviewed later.
Now, nearly every court in which I practice has adopted electronic file systems, and dealing with COVID-19 has increased the widespread use of electronic files in the legal profession. Unless judges require courtesy copies (which is less and less often), papers do not need to be printed and carefully prepared for presentation to the court. Moreover, all parties are advised to submit the paperwork promptly so there is a small possibility that they will miss out on seeing the documents. It is also much easier to find the documents deposited and use them for proposals and other purposes. I remember earlier in my career, one litigant asked each of the defendants in a case copies of their answers so he could include this in his move for a speedy ruling. This request would be unnecessary in the current environment because most papers are instantly accessible and available to everyone through electronic filing.
Another major shift in the legal profession is the move towards unlimited use of legal research platforms. When I first started out as a summer assistant, people were billed for the time they used them on a legal search platform or for the searches they had done on such platforms. This made legal research prohibitively expensive in certain cases, and a few of my former companies had libraries so lawyers could do book research and save money on expensive legal research online. Also, you had to be very careful and efficient in your research to avoid paying the bill on legal research platforms.
At some point in the past decade, legal research platforms have switched to unlimited use of per-minute or per-transaction payment systems. This is a bit like when AOL stopped charging depending on how long I’ve been on the system but on a monthly basis – but now I’m really getting old! Now, legal research projects are rarely prohibitively expensive because people usually pay one fixed price per month to use the resources, and attorneys don’t need to worry about increasing the cost. Additionally, attorneys are more free to research and find the right authority for their case. This change has also democratized the practice of law because law firms of all kinds can afford access to quality legal research.
Another major difference in the way many companies operate is how they collect expenses from their customers. When I first started practicing law, we commissioned clients to do legal research, which is very standard. However, we also charged our customers 10 cents a page for copies, phone fees, and almost everything else under the sun. This made law practice ineffective because every time I wanted to use a phone or copier, I had to enter the appropriate customer code. Since this was often a long number, I usually had to leave what I was doing, access the code, and write the code all so the customer could be charged pennies in some cases.
Someone corrects me if I’m wrong, but there appears to be a move away from charging minimal items in the current environment. Although some companies still charge page fees for copies, phone charges, and other costs, the later companies I worked for didn’t pass on small expenses to clients. This makes law practice more effective, and clients may even appreciate that they literally don’t get nicked and freaked out by their attorneys.
It is clear that the practice of law has changed over a long period of time, but when I look back at my own experience, it is crazy to think of how the practice of law has changed so drastically in the past decade. Feel free to email me your own experiences of how law has changed over the past ten years, and it’s crazy to think of where the legal profession will be in the not-too-distant future.
Jordan Rothman is a partner Rothman Law Firm, A full-service law firm in New York and New Jersey. He is also a founder Student Debt Diary, Which is a website that discusses how to pay off student loans. You can reach Jordan via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.