Our guest writer and retired lawyer, Murray Gottheil, reflects on the relationship between technology, mental health, and the legal profession.
I am a sort of a medium-tech type of guy. I treat my computer and other devices much like I deal with my pick-up truck. I know how to drive it (not that well according to my wife), but there is not much point to me looking under the hood when there is a problem. When it comes to my computer, if rebooting does not fix the problem, I call for help (which by the way is the only disadvantage to retirement that I have found so far – no tech support.)
Despite not being a natural with technology, when I was practicing law, I was pretty quick to adapt to new technology if it was likely to make my life easier. Way back when word processing first came to my law office, I spent hours building precedents which would be easy to automate. In an earlier article I told the story about how I tested my ability to work remotely way back in 2014 before work-at-home was even much of a thing. (You can read about that here.)
I am presently on a fifty-five-day cruise, during which I am continuing to write and post about issues such as how to avoid the trap of sacrificing your health to the demands of others in the legal profession. Ironically, I can only afford to be on a fifty-five day-cruise because for forty years I put my health at risk to meet the demands of others. Perhaps I will explore that trivial inconsistency another day.
At this moment I am floating in the South Pacific, somewhere between French Polynesia and American Samoa. While I devote considerable effort to doing very little that is productive, I am using what the cruise line advertises as “the fastest internet at sea,” which if the truth be told, is pretty damn good considering that I am on a ship in the middle of an ocean.
With this technology I am able to use WhatsApp to tell the people back home who are presently experiencing a ‘polar vortex’ about just how hot and humid the weather is where I am. I am sending emails, streaming movies, and doing just about anything that I can do at home. If I were still working as a lawyer (a nightmare which I still have from time to time), I would pretty much be able to manage my practice while on the slow boat to New Zealand. I would even be able to video chat with clients and colleagues and exchange documents to be signed securely with e-signatures. Not quite as amazing as the first time that I saw a document travel by fax over a phone line, but still pretty cool. And if you can do all of this from a cruise ship, you can do it from just about anywhere.
Of course, the younger that you are, the more that you take technology for granted. But young people do not yet run most of the law firms, and many of the people who do run them have not yet fully grasped its power.
On the other end of the spectrum is my former partner whose name for today will be Ron. Ron had life figured out long before I did. Rather than being all work and no play like I was for forty years, Ron managed to balance a decent litigation practice with activities such skiing the Swiss Alps, scuba diving, tennis, eating the finest foods, travelling all over the world, drinking, partying, and generally having a life. On the other hand, all of that good living was somewhat incompatible with saving money, and Ron always said that his retirement plan was to work as long as he could and then simply fade to black when he was done. Neither he nor I ever expected him to retire.
Ron recently called me to tell me that he had finally decided to retire at seventy years old. He gave as his reason that he was not comfortable with all of the virtual hearings that have become commonplace in his practice. Unfortunately, Ron did not embrace technology as it developed, and was unable to learn to use it effectively. Had he been able or willing to do that, he might have been able to continue to live his active life while making some money to support his travels.
Technology is like that. You do not have to be the type of person who buys every new device and piece of software as soon as it hits the market, but if you do not keep up you will eventually find yourself dawdling along on the technology highway at 40 kilometers per hour while everyone ese is doing a hundred and twenty. It is not likely to end well.
Which brings me to law firms, which are infamous for being slow to adopt new technology. There are many reasons which are usually cited for this (all bad). Here are just a few of them:
But although those attitudes are often expressed, they are not really the problem. There is a more fundamental reason that there are so many lawyers who are uncomfortable having to learn and adapt to new systems. One of them recently explained it to me like this (and demanded anonymity):
“It’s taken me years to get to the point where I know what I am doing, I finally know the law and how to practice it. I’m good at it. I’ve been learning for decades. My systems all work perfectly. As it is, I have to spend a lot of time just keeping up with new legal developments. I don’t want to constantly have to learn new technology systems. I am overloaded. Stop throwing more crap at me. My head is going to explode. Leave me alone already. Let me do my damn work.”
And that is the problem. It is not just that adopting new technology costs the law firm some money. It is not that it takes a whole whack of staff time. The real problem is that adapting to new technology imposes an additional burden on already overburdened and weary practitioners. Of course, they are not stupid people and they know that some time and inconvenience now will pay dividends later in terms of money saved, greater efficiency, and happier clients. But nowadays everyone is under the gun all the time, and many of them just don’t feel that they have the time to spare to deal with more change.
So, at the same time that lawyers are finally making noise about wanting to address mental health in the profession, they are balking at what would seem like an obvious solution – using technology to work smarter and free up some time.
This is where the mental health issues in the legal profession run headlong into the need to adapt to new technology, beat it down, and smash it in the head.
And that leaves the technology providers trying to explain that they can be part of the solution, while the lawyers keep saying, “I know, I know. Talk to me later. I am too busy now.”
Perhaps these lawyers should think about saying ‘no’ to a few clients in the short term so that they can work on having a better life in the long term – one where they do not spend most of their precious time doing paperwork. And although legal tech is part of the solution, that idea likely applies to more than just legal tech.
Murray Gottheil practiced law for 39 years, primarily in a medium sized law firm in Mississauga, Ontario. He was the practice head for the corporate department for much of that time and the managing partner of the firm for 5 years. Now he lives in the country, drives a pick-up truck, complains about the legal profession, and wonders whether he would have less to complain about if legal tech had been more of a thing when he was working.
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