For my generation, carrying a BlackBerry was synonymous with employment in Biglaw. For over a decade, my BlackBerry was a constant companion. At the peak of my billable-hours craziness, I would literally wake up when the little red LED light signaling a new email started blinking. No matter the hour. For the sake of my marriage, I kept my BlackBerry on silent late at night. Despite that, my wife would occasionally complain in the morning about hearing me type reply emails from bed in the wee hours.
Even though I recently gave up my BlackBerry for a more robust smartphone, I still get the occasional vibrating “BlackBerry leg.” And despite having a “modern” phone now, it is hard to not miss my BlackBerry when typing an involved email. Perhaps the introduction of non-qwerty keyboards on smartphones has led to shorter emails generally. I am not sure, but it is clear that BlackBerry’s problem was not in providing a certain capability to its clients — BlackBerry was always the best mobile email platform, and BBM was always the best mobile instant messaging one as well. What changed was the public’s conception of what a smartphone could and should do.
Like many others in Biglaw, my BlackBerry was part of my work identity. I remember getting my first one, a black-and-white model with a rotating disc to scroll between emails. And I was an early devotee of the (j)ohn (q)uinn approach to responding to emails — check constantly, and respond often. For associates who are wondering — partners do take note of who responds promptly. And which associates respond substantively, too….
As an associate, you want to be on that list — just like partners need to be responsive to their clients, no matter where in the world they are. Ultimately, BlackBerry’s big contribution to Biglaw was to introduce the age of immediate responsiveness, and the elevation of email into the primary mode of communication for most lawyers. It is hard not to be nostalgic about Biglaw’s BlackBerry era, maybe because it coincided with what seems now like the glory years of 2003-2007.
I know I am not alone, and everyone who is in or passed through Biglaw before 2011 has some kind of BlackBerry story. But Biglaw is changing, and the prevalence of BlackBerry-toting lawyers is diminishing rapidly.
Even though many firms still give their lawyers “firm-issued” BlackBerrys, that practice is a bit archaic and wasteful. Biglaw “office” lawyers do not really need a second device to carry, and Biglaw “traveling” lawyers are already carrying around a panoply of laptops, tablets, and phones. Throwing a BlackBerry on top of that is overkill. It’s also a security hazard for client information, since the more devices you travel with the more likely you are to lose them. Especially a secondary device like a BlackBerry, which you consult infrequently or only use when you need to type a long response email.
Unfortunately, silly practices like handing out firm BlackBerrys is what passes for technological innovation at many Biglaw firms today. Again, if you are a lawyer who mainly practices from the office, you really only need to be reachable remotely from home or during your commute. Any smartphone can handle the commute (or if you have a really long one, your firm is better off giving you a mifi device for your laptop or tablet), and you better have a fully-functioning home office setup if you are in Biglaw. (Tangent — and a topic for a future column — but I think Biglaw firms should insist on limited, sub-45 minute commutes, for the majority of their lawyers. Yes, firms should have a say on where their talent lives.) For lawyers like myself who travel frequently, a mi-fi device is a better investment for the firm to make than an extra BlackBerry to collect dust at the bottom of a laptop bag.
Generally, the problem with technology in Biglaw is two-fold: (1) it is not geared towards facilitating client communication, and (2) most firms take a blunderbuss approach rather than having IT work with each individual lawyer to determine their specific needs. Problem number one is systematic. Most Biglaw firms have elaborate video-conferencing capabilities. But they are centralized and static. With the advent of Skype, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime, there are now myriad (and mobile) ways for face-to-face communication both intra-firm and with the outside world. Face-to-face communication is a richer form of interaction. Unless your firm is populated by anti-social ogres, you would want people communicating in real-time, while looking at each other. What is the point of the Abu Dhabi office if the lawyers there are faceless to their own colleagues 99 percent of the time? Any firm with global aspirations should have some kind of instant messaging/video chat functionality accessible internally and to clients. I know there are risks from a conflicts/ethics perspective, but they are manageable. I would hope Biglaw attorneys would exercise enough judgment not to do a video chat with a client or colleague while in a form of undress. (Ok, maybe not, considering my own experience seeing a big-time Biglaw lawyer exercising atrocious judgment on an Acela. But that is what ATL is for anyway.)
Finally, it is time for Biglaw firms to set up technology audits of their lawyers. We are in a service business, and there is no excuse for Biglaw lawyers not to have the technology they need to meet their clients’ needs. Put another way, technology issues should never be a barrier to timely, effective client service. We charge too much for that to be the case. If high schoolers can find a way to keep in real-time, face-to-face contact with their cousins overseas, surely Biglaw can figure a way for its lawyers to do a client pitch with a potential overseas client at least as effectively. Biglaw has said good-bye to its BlackBerrys but unfortunately remains in need of the next technological game-changer. I do know that the firms that can best develop technology, and showcase it to clients in a way that makes the firm’s lawyers more accessible and responsive, will have a great advantage as the Biglaw shake-up continues. Which firms will seize that advantage?
What do you think about the technology at your firm, and what does Biglaw need to do to keep current technology-wise? Let me know by email or in the comments.
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.