Computers changed forever the way the legal profession operates. We look back at a world of pens, paper and having the weekend off

Imagine the scene. The desk was buried under a mountain of papers that rustled gently in the breeze. The lawyers had swung the windows wide open but it had barely eased the sweltering summer heat inside the offices.

Suddenly, a Routemaster rushed by in the street and a gust of wind swirled the stacks of paper into the air.

The past, it seems, consisted of miles and miles of paper. On your desk would sit your telephone, dictaphone and some books. There were pens, lots and lots of pens, in a multitude of colours. A secretary would work with two fee-earners at most to control the avalanche.

Contracts were negotiated in travelling drafts that were DX-ed around and became progressively more colourful as parties marked it up in their different coloured pens and ­typewriter tapes. Trainees spent their days doing company searches on microfiche readers and laboriously comparing changes between successive typed drafts. The telex machine would spit out great toilet rolls of ­print-outs and rows and rows of fax machines were attended and fed full time by teams of ­dedicated staff.

Sounds comic? Perhaps, but a lawyer in 1987 would be ­horrified by the level of work expected in 2007. As Slaughter and May partner Malcolm ­Nicholson recalls: “People ­finished on Friday and didn’t expect to work until Monday.”

Both technology and the profession have clearly changed a great deal.

Lawyers grasp the internet

In a survey in 1997 by The Lawyer, one solictor described the internet as ‘an executive toy’

58 per cent predicted that the web would play a ‘valuable’ role in the future of the profession

63 per cent of solictors had access to email, but a quarter of them said they did not find it ­useful for their job because of lack of security and because fax and telephone were faster.

Peaks and troughs in law firm email history

2001: Norton Rose assistant Bradley Chait becomes globally notorious after he forwards a saucy email from his ­girlfriend Claire Swire to his friends. The email ended up being seen by more than a million people. Chait was ­suspended from Norton Rose, while the ­Financial Services Authority also suspended nine ­members of staff because they received and ­forwarded the email exchange in breach of the organisation’s email policy.

2001: When Rachel Walker, a black secretary at Charles Russell, announced her resignation from his firm, assistant Adam Dowdney emailed partner Clive Hopewell saying: “Can we go for a real fit busty blonde this time?” ­Walker saw the message; letters of apology followed from both Dowdney and Hopewell, but Walker took her case to an employment tribunal. The sex and race discrimination claim was settled for an undisclosed sum. Charles Russell did not admit liability.

2002: The Clifford Chance partnership vote was delayed on its governance shake-up because the firm admitted that it had “moved over to electronic voting and some partners are finding that less easy than filling things in”.

2003: Freshfields project finance associates were left in no doubt of their career prospects when a misdirected partnership email made it clear the firm was not going to be promoting within that department any time soon.

2005: Baker & McKenzie assistant Richard Phillips emailed secretary Jenny Amner implying she had spilt tomato ketchup on his trousers and asking her to foot the bill for £4. She apologised for her late reply a week later, blaming the “more pressing issue” of her mother’s death.

2005: Allen & Overy leveraged finance legend Tony Keal sent an email complaining that ­assistants in his area of practice were substantially underpaid. However, Keal mistakenly sent the email not to managing partner David Morley as intended, but to the entire banking department. It kicked off an internal row about assistant pay rates, and much more besides.

Bit by bit
When the first computers with their tiny orange screens arrived, they quickly made mincemeat of golf-ball typewriters and travelling drafts. Each revolutionary $175,000 5520 IBM word processing system had between 15 and 18 ‘slave display stations’ attached, with a secretary on each.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer partner and technology
enthusiast Edward Braham remembers when the first of these machines came in. “When we went to negotiations and [we] said [to the other side], ‘I’ll give you a new draft by tomorrow,’ jaws dropped.”

In 1987, The Lawyer reported Linklaters that had spent £6m on “top of the range” “WANG VS 7310 minicomputers”, largely for “database purposes, incorporating the existing 8m-page precedent library and to produce documents more quickly”.
Portable phones that were the size, weight and shape of bricks became the must-have accessory for the fashionable partner about town.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, computers had already been handling most financial and accounting work and were making inroads on client relationship management and marketing.
Even so, there was a great digital divide. As The Lawyer reported in 1987: “Two-thirds of the profession do not use computers. Less than 40 per cent have word processors and just four per cent have a facsimile machine.”

But the top firms forged ahead. In 1992 Freshfields gave everybody in the firm a PC and went live with Windows 3.1 and Microsoft Word. David Hamilton, head of Freshfields’
IT department since its creation in 1988, recalls that for
some partners there was a “degree of faith associated” with having “the world’s most expensive post-it holder” put on their desks.

But the usefulness of the technology soon made any
reservations irrelevant.

Richard Susskind, academic, lawyer and IT pundit, remembers “a few weirdos around” at firms in the early to mid-1990s “who had flashing modems sitting on their desks”.

At that time, the ‘Internet’ (with a capital ‘I’) was still
largely the preserve of geeks, academics and the military, and ‘electronic mail’ at law firms was mostly confined to
communicating internally on proprietary networks and
systems such as BT’s Telecom Gold.

But when the World Wide Web began to take off with the help of the Netscape Navigator web browser, lawyers’
perceptions about the internet began to change too. By around 1996 the internet boom was well and truly underway and Susskind wrote that email would be the main way lawyers would communicate in future. But even at that stage, he remembers, things were far from settled.

Initially lawyers had major misgivings about sending
emails over the internet. They had particular fears about ­safeguarding lawyer-client confidentiality from hackers, crackers and viruses on the anarchic ‘net. However, Microsoft’s dominance was a tremendous driving force, as the mass adoption of Outlook and Word by clients made lawyers’ objections practically irrelevant.

Olswang partner Nigel Swycher remembers that within approximately five years, faxes received by his former firm Slaughter and May had decreased from around 1m pages a quarter to around 1,000. By the turn of the millennium,
the internet had firmly established itself as the main form
of communication.

Fruit machines
Home computing and broadband penetration continually increased, and by 2001 many of the leading firms were rolling out ‘thin client’ services that made working away from the office a real possibility. Lawyers could now go home and check their work email messages, access documents and do most things they could do in the office. Paul Greenwood, head of IT at Clifford Chance, calls it a “revelation”.

BlackBerrys first appeared in the same year, and by 2002 and 2003, most partners had one: by 2004, every big City firm associate did.

The union with the “Crackberry” started out as a “love-hate relationship” for many, according to Freshfields’ Hamilton. Greenwood remembers that some people were told by their doctor to put their ’Berry in a different room at night, for stress reasons.

But he adds: “It’s amazing how much people can get done without having to be in the office.”

Half man, half machine
Susskind believes technology has revolutionised lawyers’ communication and information-seeking habits and has created greater efficiency and saved costs. Transactions now run at unimaginable speeds and complexity compared with 20 years ago. The internet is pervasive in our private as well as professional lives. And if you took away a firm’s accounting, knowledge management, billing and word processing systems, the firm “would die within a day”.

But clearly, technology and its many benefits are also “part of the Faustian pact,” says Freshfields partner Mark Rawlinson. “You’re never off-duty now, never off-call.”

Some may question whether the trade-off is worth it.