“Necessity is the mother of invention” is one of my favorite sayings. We don't “need” to do something until we really “need” to figure it out. I've often used it to explain some mild procrastination.
Scott Edwards recently mused over how technology might change personal injury law. With the recent outbreak of coronavirus, I got to thinking about how technology might change the business and day-to-day operations side. The virus has caused many businesses to have to become flexible to limit the possible spread of the virus.
There's a natural tension between technology and tradition. Technology represents change. It seeks to improve and modify the old ways we did things. They get done faster, more efficiently, and with less effort.
By contrast, the law is, in many ways, steeped in tradition. It is slow-moving, and entrenched in all our societal functions. That plodding pace helps maintain societal stability. There are institutions and people who rely on the law and the legal infrastructure to remain largely the same so that things can continue to get done.
Advances in technology demand changes, but the law is slow to adapt. The courts have to serve the needs of everyone, and there can be issues with access to services. Still, as slow as the change may be, the legal institutions are working to catch up with the pace and changes of technology. All Oregon courts are paperless; federal courts are largely paperless.
One of the ways these two concepts merge with the virus outbreak is through telecommuting. A recent Columbian article celebrated many of the benefits of working from home. It may be good for productivity. It solves equity problems for those with child care needs and those who care for the elderly. Worker turnover drops, and they take less sick time. It is good for the environment, and both businesses and workers save money.
The counterpoint, as always, is tradition. Personally, I like going into the office. I like having a physical space that I can dedicate to work without distraction. I like meeting with clients face-to-face. I like leaving my work at the office—to be fair, I often check my emails on evenings and weekends, and difficult projects are never far from my mind, as my wife could attest. I have to recognize this is a luxury that I have, and I have to recognize not everyone has that same luxury. I also feel that, for some things, there is no substitute for a face to face meeting. Sitting in the same room as a person feels different than a phone or video call. I like that, too.
So, where does that leave us? With COVID-19 spreading, affordability of technology, and cloud-based everything, we may see some temporary shifts in how things are done. This could lead to broader shifts in the law, in office management, and in the way things are done in society. Telecommuting is something that can be done, although I will probably always prefer a physical office space. But we need to be exactly as flexible and inventive as necessary. Only time will tell what exactly that means.