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Commentary: The more things change, the more they become different

Spencer Farris//January 17, 2023

Commentary: The more things change, the more they become different

Spencer Farris//January 17, 2023

Spencer Farris
Spencer Farris

I just had the Monday-est of Mondays. I was loafing through my morning routine, walking the dog in the cold, pretending to work out, and having breakfast. I glanced at my phone and noticed that I had fifteen minutes to get ready for a remote hearing that was on my calendar but not on my mind. Since ten minutes early is five minutes late for me, I panicked through a shower and threw on a suit. Work from home to the rescue.

Luckily, I was able to make it onto the hearing before the judge logged in. As I waited my turn, the electric company stopped by to replace the electric meter. My wife told me the good news — don’t worry, we will only lose power for about a minute. Turns out a minute is all it takes to lose my internet connection. As I waited for the router to reboot, I remembered that I had previously turned off the cellular data feed that should have kept my video conference connected.

I frantically tried to get back into the hearing but the judge had closed the videoconference window. Luck part two, he called me and was nonplussed about the glitch on my end.  As much as we have become accustomed to technology connecting us, we’ve also gotten used to it disconnecting.

Next, I headed to the office for a 4 p.m. deposition. I try to avoid depositions during the holiday season, even more than I try to avoid them generally. This was the deposition of a witness we had had difficulty locating so I had no choice. I wanted to go to the farm to get my snowplow before the impending blizzard but this deposition kept me from skipping town. It didn’t keep the witness from skipping the deposition however. Scheduling glitches are much older than technology glitches and my opponent and I took it in stride. The court reporter’s cancellation charge was a minor annoyance to end what had been a lousy day. If only it were the end.

I went home cranky. Justifiably so, in my opinion. Turns out I wasn’t the only one at my house in a bad mood. Even my dog gave me dirty looks.

Monday usually brings the Missouri Lawyers Weekly, if the mailman feels like delivering mail. He didn’t on this Monday, naturally. If he had, I would have learned that this newspaper I rely on wasn’t going to be coming on Monday anymore. Or at all.

Specialty legal newspapers are among the many casualties of the pandemic. Many of the papers that used to run this column have given up and closed their doors. Fortunately, the Lawyers Weekly only gave way to become a monthly magazine. The new magazine format is exciting for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it doesn’t leave newsprint on my shirts.

As I end my third decade of lawyering and second decade of writing a legal column, I have witnessed a lot of changes. Many of them will be foreign to young attorneys, much like a life without microwave ovens or color televisions. Here are a few bygones that I won’t miss:

Paint by number appellate briefs

Even worse than being the appellant after a trial was the hassle of printing ten copies of a brief and attaching the correct colored cover.  I don’t recall any cases where an appeal was dismissed for having the wrong-colored cover, but some litigants were taken to task in footnotes for this gaffe.

When I practiced in a big firm, we had all the necessary cover colors and a binding machine in our copy room. Fortunately, the debate about whether our light brown covers were actually dark tan occurred in a partners’ meeting before I was even an associate.

Nine-pound paper gave way to 5.25-inch floppy disks before disks gave way to PDFs in 13-point Times Roman font sent by email. See also carbon paper and onion skin. Last-minute corrections are much easier on a computer than they were with a frantic trip to a print shop but remain annoying.

Bad Shepards

The key to successful legal writing has always been finding the most up-to-date cases. After hours in the law library hunting for a case with the right magic words, the final step to research was to check Shepard’s to see if the chosen cases were still good law. Shepards updated its list of overturned precedents with every new appellate court opinion. Quoting a case that had been overruled just last week was the most embarrassing way to lose a motion hearing. A lawyer only had to see the smug look on an opponent’s face once to learn that lesson. Shepardizing cases was the googling of its day. No one misses that day, which we are all pretty sure was a Monday.

Driving to the Courthouse to file anything

Lawyers procrastinate so it probably isn’t a coincidence that the first word in “deadline” is “dead.” Miss a statute of limitations because your petition didn’t get to court on time, call your malpractice insurer. Make it out of the copy shop with the correct number of correctly colored briefs but don’t deliver them to the appellate court clerk on time, call the undertaker. As a first-year intern, I once drove a pile of briefs for my boss to the wrong appellate court. My affidavit documenting the mistake for eternity saved me from death. Barely.

I typically like change. The change of this publication to its new magazine format is very modern. Magazine pages convey a sense of dignity that newsprint can’t match. You can’t use a magazine page to start a fire or wrap fish heads.  I look forward to my byline appearing on this page as we warp into the future. Knowing that my face won’t be used to wrap fish heads anymore makes it even better.

— ©2023 With All Due Respect. Spencer Farris is the founding partner of The S.E. Farris Law Firm in St Louis, Missouri. Happy new year to you all, and he means it about the fish head thing. Comments or criticisms about this column may be sent c/o this newspaper, I mean magazine, or directly to me via email at [email protected].

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