Podcast: Dictaphones to Zoom Fatigue: Navigating the Multigenerational Practice of LawRead Time: 11 mins
Gen X, Gen Y, Boomers, Millennials – those are convenient labels. But what do they mean in the modern practice of law? What do they mean at all, for that matter? Do we practice differently now than we did 20 years ago or 50 years ago?
Dan Plunkett: Joining me today to discuss the practice of law and how it might differ across generations is Woody Norwood, a 1972 law graduate from Tulane University, who’s been practicing ever since. On the other end of the spectrum, Alyssa Weiss has been out of school for three years now, I understand. And Kerry Cummings, who is a 2007 grad.
I, Dan Plunkett, from the New Orleans office of McGlinchey Stafford, fall in the middle of that group. Welcome, today, everybody. Thanks for joining us. I want to explore how the practice of law has evolved from a communication standpoint and whether that’s been driven by technology, COVID-19, generational preferences, or all three. So Woody, when you started in the practice of law, what did they tell you about typewriters?
Woody Norwood: Well, they told me I couldn’t have one. I learned to type when I was a kid and was good at it. When I started at another firm in 1972, I asked if I could have a typewriter because it would save the trouble of having to talk into a Dictaphone and have a secretary pore over my words and try to make sense of them and put them on paper. When in fact, I could do that directly. I was told that lawyers do not use typewriters, and they wouldn’t give me one.
Dan Plunkett: And now email is the most prevalent form of communication in the legal community. Can you imagine a lawyer who couldn’t type?
Woody Norwood: Well, I could imagine it, but I don’t think I could find it anywhere in our office.
Dan Plunkett: Fair enough, fair enough. And those of us who still dictate are becoming fewer by the day. Alyssa Weiss, what kind of Dictaphone do you use?
Alyssa Weiss: I don’t. I am exclusively email or phone. There’s no Dictaphone for me; it’s all typing.
Dan Plunkett: Do you text your clients?
Alyssa Weiss: I have not before, but I can see that happening.
Dan Plunkett: How about colleagues?
Alyssa Weiss: Definitely texting with colleagues, that’s for sure.
Dan Plunkett: And Kerry, you fall somewhere in between. So you’ve seen the advent of the iPhone during your practice, and certainly, it is becoming ubiquitous. Where do you fall on this spectrum of typing, texting, and dictating?
Kerry Cummings: Typing and texting. No dictating for me.
Dan Plunkett: Interesting. Now, do you think that’s a function of your generational preference or the evolution of technology?
Kerry Cummings: I think it’s more of a generational preference for me. I know going through, even starting my legal career, dictating was never really an option. But I started with the Blackberry, and then we moved on to the iPhone, and email is always a big part of my legal career. So that’s where that comes from.
Dan Plunkett: And do you find that some of the clients you interface with are your age now? Right?
Kerry Cummings: Absolutely. That’s definitely changed.
Dan Plunkett: What’s their preferred method of communication?
Kerry Cummings: It’s texting and typing and phone calls. Always a phone call.
Dan Plunkett: Texting and emails?
Kerry Cummings: Yeah, absolutely.
Dan Plunkett: Interesting. Did the pandemic change any of that for you, Alyssa? So that’s maybe not a fair question because you’ve only practiced law during the time of Covid.
Alyssa Weiss: Yes, that is correct.
Dan Plunkett: Did you feel comfortable having Zoom meetings and emails as your principal methods of communication?
Alyssa Weiss: I’ve never done it any other way. My last year and a half of law school was almost entirely online. I did Zoom classes for two and a half semesters, with my last semester being half in person and half over zoom. So zoom meetings and email communications and all of that is second nature to me.
Dan Plunkett: Woody, I wonder whether technology has changed the words we use in the practice of law. So you and I can remember a day when knowing a Latin phrase might get you an extra point on your exam. We don’t see much Latin in pleadings anymore.
Woody Norwood: Ipso facto, right? I can’t think of anything to say in response to that. Quod erat demonstrandum. I’ve always been a fan of plain language in legal pleadings, eschewing, if I could use an obscure English word, that sort of jargon. Professional lingo, or spell-binding Latin that creates magic, is something that is fallen by the wayside, and it probably should. I’ve always been a fan. I’ve subscribed to a semiannual publication called Clarity, which is entirely devoted to the proposition that properly crafted legal documents and legislation can be formed with plain language that is clear and understandable to anyone who can read and has a modicum of intelligence. Hiding behind the language that, frankly, irritates even judges is a bad idea. So, to the extent that email has not adopted any Latin lingo, I think that’s a good thing. However, email and texting have their own quirks and abbreviations that are sometimes difficult for a person like me to understand.
Dan Plunkett: Well, that’s an excellent point. Sometimes I feel excluded, frankly, in a text chain or group because I don’t understand the lingo, and it’s the emojis in particular, I’ll concede, that confuse me. I don’t know the difference between the eyeballs going left or right or up or down, and I found a sad and happy face. I’m lost. Alyssa, you don’t use emojis in client communications, do you?
Alyssa Weiss: Definitely not. I try not to use emojis in any context where they can be misconstrued just because you can mean one thing, and someone else will take it in a completely different way. So I try just to stay away from them altogether.
Dan Plunkett: That’s probably very sound advice. Kerry, when was the last time you used a Latin phrase in an email?
Kerry Cummings: I mean, the first year I practiced. Oh, in an email? Never.
Dan Plunkett: Yeah. And you were going to say you did it in a pleading years ago?
Kerry Cummings: The first year I practiced was the last time I threw a Latin phrase in there. I am a big advocate of plain language in my motions.
Dan Plunkett: Yes, that was probably always good advice. And irrespective of generation or mode of communication, we should have been writing more clearly all along.
One place that technology has certainly impacted our practice is the manner in which we receive information. The days of having an extensive law library, the days of having the postman drop off any number of letters and big envelopes full of stuff, full of pleadings, are largely gone. And now we get information through the screen in front of us. Woody, how big a deal was a law library when you began practicing?
Woody Norwood: Well, it was big. It was huge. It was essential. What occurred would be a disparity between firms that could afford large research libraries and individual practitioners and small firms that could not. I remember it was early in 1974 we were approached by Lexus Nexus, which was starting what amounted to the first actual comprehensive legal library. And our partner, Graham Stafford, played with it and found a private letter ruling by the Internal Revenue Service that had been issued out of their office in Hawaii. It was directly on point and helpful to him in a case in New Orleans; it was not a precedent, but in the Hawaii case, the IRS was taking a position directly opposite to that Graham was trying to get through in New Orleans. And it stunned them to see that their own words were being used against them, and how that had happened. We’ve also seen this in literature, with plagiarists being, you know, caught by artificial intelligence, going through immense volumes of text.
Dan Plunkett: Correct, but yes, sure. It’s shrunk the world, no doubt. Now you can see the entire world of legal literature on your iPhone. You carry a supercomputer with you everywhere.
Alyssa, you don’t know differently than the pandemic. Let’s discuss technology and the generational differences between office hours and availability. What’s a typical day look like for you?
Alyssa Weiss: I typically try to be as available as possible from roughly nine to six. That’s generally the hours everyone’s working, accounting for time differences and things like that. But I’m so used to being in the pandemic world where hours are shifted, and I can find myself working until 11:00 PM some nights. And I’m not expecting anyone else to be working alongside me. I’m doing it on my own time, and if I’m sending out an email, I’m not expecting a response until general working hours.
Dan Plunkett: Have you taken a vacation yet since you joined the firm?
Alyssa Weiss: No, I have not.
Dan Plunkett: Then we’ll ask Kerry. When you go on vacation, do you take your firm-issued smartphone with you?
Kerry Cummings: So I lie to myself and say I will leave it in my suitcase. But yes, it is in my purse with me at all times, unfortunately, when I’m on vacation.
Dan Plunkett: There’s no such thing as being out of pocket, is there?
Kerry Cummings: No, there’s not. And the emails also come to my iWatch, so they can always get me.
Dan Plunkett: Is that your choice? And you find that that’s the best way to practice law for you and your lifestyle choices, or is that a generational question, or do you think it’s imposed upon you by the world?
Kerry Cummings: I think it’s imposed upon me by the world, but it’s also more my choice as well.
Dan Plunkett: Woody, do you have a smartphone? Yes?
Woody Norwood: Yes.
Dan Plunkett: How often do you check it in the typical after-hours setting?
Woody Norwood: As seldom as I can.
Dan Plunkett: Is that a function of the fact that you’ve earned it over 50 years of practice, or a generational, used to being able to leave the office and leave it behind?
Woody Norwood: I think it’s a combination of things. The way my practice has developed in the last year or two, where I’m mainly transitioning work to others in the firm, there are fewer emergencies that come up. I can say a little bit about what Alyssa said about having to work till 11 or midnight. That was typical when trials were coming hot and heavy, and things had to be done, and some deadlines couldn’t move and that sort of thing. Because there are fewer deadlines that require an instant response, at least as I am practicing now, I try to get away from the phone as much as I can in the evening.
Dan Plunkett: Woody, when you started practicing law, how many lawyers were assigned to each secretary?
Woody Norwood: It was almost one-to-one.
Dan Plunkett: Because you were dictating and that’s what it took for them to type out pleadings, pre-word processor. Right?
Woody Norwood: I don’t know what the reason was. I think that has something to do with it, but there was almost a one to one secretary to attorney ratio when I started practicing.
Dan Plunkett: Alyssa, how many attorneys share your secretary?
Alyssa Weiss: Three of us.
Dan Plunkett: Three. And that’s actually probably on the low side for the firm. I’ll have to get with HR and get that corrected. Sorry to take advantage of your admission. Kerry, how many do you share with?
Kerry Cummings: There’s three of us as well. Maybe it’s a Fort Lauderdale thing.
Dan Plunkett: And have you noticed that the younger the lawyer, the less secretarial support they might need?
Kerry Cummings: Yes, actually, I have. I know when I was a younger lawyer, it was one-to-one as well. I’ve seen that huge difference where, [they don’t] utilize the secretary as much as, say, I do or some of the other folks.
Dan Plunkett: So even in your brief career, you’ve seen this evolution from one to one to three or even more?
Kerry Cummings: Absolutely.
Dan Plunkett: Excellent. The other thing that changes communications in law practice is Woody is the only one on the call who knows what a court runner is.
Woody Norwood: Well, I do know; I don’t know if anyone else knows.
Kerry Cummings: My generation had court runners as well.
Dan Plunkett: But Alyssa’s doesn’t.
Alyssa Weiss: Right, we do not, no.
Dan Plunkett: So you push a button, and it flies across the street to the courthouse instead of having somebody in tennis shoes take it over there for you.
Alyssa Weiss: It’s a lot quicker that way.
Dan Plunkett: Last round of questions, and we’re going to start in an inverse order in deference to Woody having the most years to think about. Alyssa, what’s changed in the practice of law for you in 18 months?
Alyssa Weiss: One thing that’s probably changed that I’ve been around long enough to witness is everyone else catching up to my generation when it comes to technology, to the point that sometimes I will want a simple phone call, and everyone else around me would rather text or email. And I’m so used to it, I’ve been doing Zoom for so long, and I’ve been handling it through email and text message, that sometimes it almost feels more complicated to rely on technology when we don’t have to.
Dan Plunkett: That is a remarkable insight, that the youth may lead us back to a simpler time despite technological advancements. Kerry, I know because we’ve worked together, that my generation often clarifies when we say “contact opposing counsel,” we’ll specify the method because that could mean a letter, email, text, et cetera. And so we’re often quick to specify the method. Have you seen that evolve throughout your career?
Kerry Cummings: Actually, not in my case because I always pick up the phone immediately. And a lot of the folks I work with know that’s how I generally communicate with people. Pick up the phone, have the conversation, and then memorialize it via an email subsequently. So I don’t think, in my case, it’s not that often.
Dan Plunkett: And Woody, we will give you the last word since you’ve got the most years to reflect on. What’s the biggest thing that’s changed in the practice of law in your mind between 1972 and now?
Woody Norwood: I think it has to do with the democratization of knowledge in terms of digital libraries in every aspect of our practice. The other thing that I have noticed is less travel because you don’t have to travel as much as you used to. You can take depositions by video with a client in Japan, if you happen to have one. So those kinds of technological leaps have been incorporated into the practice and have made it a little fairer regarding the resources available to the typical practitioner.
Dan Plunkett: Back to the notion that only the big firms could have the big libraries.
Woody Norwood: Well, yes, there was a divide.
Dan Plunkett: Interesting. Well, it sounds like Alyssa is going to lead us back around to the days that maybe you and I are more used to, where you picked up the phone to talk to a colleague instead of picking up a keyboard. And wouldn’t that be a refreshing change?
Woody Norwood: Or go see the client.
Dan Plunkett: In person?
Woody Norwood: That’s a good idea.
Dan Plunkett: Wow. We may need a second episode. He’s destroyed all these notions of communication. Face to face, how revolutionary.
Woody, thank you for joining us today. Alyssa, Kerry, be well. Thank you for joining the McGlinchey podcast on the generational practice of law.
Woody Norwood: Thank you.
Kerry Cummings: Thanks.
Alyssa Weiss: Thank you.
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