A Generational Perspective: Retro Is Trending

The Bencher—May/June 2021

By O.K. Boomer

Vow to Get Out and Meet the People!
The pandemic has forced many of us to work from home on our computers. But even before the virus, too many younger lawyers thought that the practice of law consisted largely of sitting before the glowing screen idols all day.

Wrong. The law is (and should be) the ultimate people profession. We deal with people who have problems or needs. I fear that an entire generation is failing to develop the face-to-face interpersonal skills needed to excel as lawyers and as citizens. Body language is still a powerful clue to a person’s real thoughts, but grainy Zoom images, email chains, and telephone conversations mask these important signals.

The internet and the smartphone are, to be sure, powerful resources. They should toil for us; we should not be beholden to them. Do you really need your phone to start your car, unlock your door, and entertain you while you stroll?

This pandemic must end sometime. Both transactional and litigating attorneys should then resolve to meet face-to-face with more people more often. This includes clients, opposing counsel, witnesses, bureaucrats, and co-workers. I have solved seemingly intractable problems with, for example, the recorder’s office, by physically walking into their office and talking to a real human being. It certainly gets their attention after phone calls and emails have failed.

Do you want to conduct a mandatory discovery conference with opposing counsel by telephone? Don’t. Go to their offices. You will learn much about your case that way. How many lawyers do they assign to the conference? What is their rank in the firm? How seriously do they take your case? What documents have they prepared or are consulting? And you might just develop a more respectful relationship with opposing counsel by meeting face-to-face. Someday, they might actually refer a case to you.

Young lawyers must also develop people skills by face-to-face networking. I am often amazed at bar receptions when groups of young lawyers stand together in a cluster with colleagues they already know. They make no effort to meet and mingle with others, many of whom are bar leaders who could doubtless help their careers. The American Inns of Court provide an excellent opportunity to network in a relaxed dinner environment. The Inn programs permit everyone to participate and laugh together. Bar associations also provide excellent chances to meet lawyers outside the work environment. I fear that lack of face-to-face interactions with persons of diverse backgrounds and opinions will result in a generation that too often does not know how to engage in earnest and civil discussions, or negotiate, or, heaven forbid, compromise. This is already too evident in today’s political conversations.

So, get out of the office and talk to people face-to-face. That is the practice of law. Staring at a glowing screen all day is not.

Self-fulfilling Myths
The more we rely on these glowing screens, the more security we think we need. This is a vicious cycle. Courts and bar associations have even issued officious rules demanding that lawyers know how to safeguard everything online. But how much of the average lawyer’s output contains really sensitive secrets? Here again, I think retro is better. Instead of emailing or texting a client, why not just pick up the phone and talk? No record of the conversation exists to be protected, and likely no one will intercept a phone call. Those truly sensitive client documents? Have them messengered, FedExed, or mailed to the client. General George Washington communicated to his officers by messenger, and he won the Revolution against the savviest army in the world. It still works. The information is secure, and no copy is rattling vulnerably around in cyberspace.

Your firm’s computers that generate all this top-secret content are accessed via passwords. My laptop requires over 140 unique user identification/password combinations. These cannot possibly be memorized. So, I write them all down in shorthand on an alphabetical list, which I keep in my locked desk. It works. “Experts” say we should use one of those password-generating apps. A user needs only to remember the one key password to the app itself. But then the “experts” say that as a backup we should write down that one key password and store it in a secure location—like a locked desk! So, what is gained by all this subterfuge? And how secure is the key app itself? How reliable is its operation? Here again, consider a retro approach to passwords—just write them down and hide them in a safe spot—before making your life more stressful, complex, and difficult.

The Eternal Work-life Balance Conundrum
When a young lawyer tells me that a better “work-life balance” is a job requirement, it translates to us Boomers as “I don’t want to work too hard.” Lecturers tell us that this is just a new world view that we must respect and honor. These lecturers are wrong. Everyone, even my generation, has always wanted a better work-life balance. At my (former) litigation boutique, a new hire might be on a team preparing and trying a jury case for three weeks. This requires 20-hour days seven days a week. If you are not willing to commit to this, you are not a good fit for a litigation job. If you are not willing to cancel weekend plans to defend the inevitable Friday afternoon TRO motion, you are not a good fit for a litigation firm. So, don’t list “work-life balance” as a goal. It still translates as “I don’t want to work too hard.” You and your family will have to determine and set your work-life balance. A law firm can be sympathetic toward specific family-oriented needs, but you are important to us and we need you in the office.

The practice of law should be about people and their needs and problems. All the technology in the world cannot insulate lawyers from necessary human interactions. When faced with an issue, consider the less stressful retro solutions. They worked well for many generations.

“O.K. Boomer” is a pseudonym for attorney William R. Coulson, Esquire, who has offices in Illinois and Colorado. He has practiced law since 1972, when manual typewriters and “white-out” mistake corrector were normal, and well before email and the internet made the practice of law more hectic and perilous. Coulson first joined the Chicago Lincoln American Inn of Court in 1992.
© 2021 William R. Coulson, Esq. This article was originally published in the May/Jun 2021 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.