Back in the day, when my Mom was a Real Estate partner at Ropes & Gray in Boston, she had in her skyscraper-ish office an old, golden-oak rolltop desk. Though it was usually buried beneath similarly skyscraper-ish piles of documents, where each such document evidenced some thrillingly arcane sewer easement or preexisting non-conforming use, the desk itself always had a welcoming charm. Looking back, it still seems to me like a stately reminder of a more genteel time, when well-mannered lawyers provided unhurried counsel to longstanding clients, behaving generally like characters in an Edith Wharton novel.
Fast-forward to one day late in my Mom’s career. (No…not the day when everyone at the firm laughed at her for telling an already mega-famous Jim Carrey, “They tell me you’re a comedian. Good for you. You’re such a polite young man; just stick with it and things will work out for your career.” While totally true, that’s another story for another blog on another day). No, I’m talking instead about the day she arrived in her office to find an alien device blinking soullessly at her from her beloved antique desk. Confused, annoyed, and perhaps a bit afraid, Mom regarded this intruder for a few minutes. Then she called Technical Services to determine its provenance and whether it posed anyactual threat to her well-being. They quickly told her, “Oh…didn’t you see the memo? That’s your new computer. Everyone at the firm is getting one…we’re all going to be using them to keep track of our time from now on.”
I will leave aside any ironic comments about timekeeping being the first use law firms made of the greatest time-saving device ever invented.
Ever polite, Mom listened carefully as the voice from Technical Services extolled the virtues of the unwelcome newcomer. Then she said, “Well…that’s lovely. Thank you. Now please come and take it away. I can’t see my rolltop desk because of it…And it’s blinking at me.”
Nothing against my Mom. Got herself from a modest background through Vassar College and Yale Law School on scholarships. Clerked at the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts. Started at Ropes & Gray at a time when there was precious little support or opportunity for female attorneys. Had five kids in six years, leaving the firm for a while in the middle of this run (but helping organize the Peace Corps during her “time off”). Then returned to work. Then had a sixth kid. Then shortly thereafter, becoming the firm’s second female partner ever. All the while doing a great job raising my five siblings, and a marginally okay job raising me. So, y’know, hardly a woman afraid of challenge or change. Just one who didn’t want a 20th-century device on her 19th-century desktop.
This mini-parable of the blinking-computer-on-the old-oaken-rolltop-desk always reminds me that no matter how accomplished or intellectually curious a person may be, once they get used to doing things a certain way, it becomes difficult to get them to change that way. Actually, it turns out that the more accomplished a person is, the more pronounced their resistance to change may be. ”I have been successful when I do X, therefore X is the way to be successful.” This is hardly surprising. Evolutionary biologists correlate the degree to which a species has adapted to its environment with the likelihood that species will “win” by out-competing neighbors for resources within that environment. Turns out that, whether you’re a finch in the Galapagos or an fifth-year at Goodwin, the more fundamentally you adjust to the rules your survival depends on, the more likely you are to survive. Seems logical enough, right? Finches and fifth-years who morph to fit in live, respectively, to have baby finches and become sixth-years.
Precisely because of their high level of adaptation to their environments, however, evolutionary “winners” find themselves especially susceptible to environmental change. If a finch’s beak is perfectly adapted to crushing seeds, they’re in trouble when drought or disease or new competition remove their one food source. When you succeed because you are so tied into doing things one way that works in your world, you tend to miss out on changes to that world…even fundamental changes that threaten survival. There’s even a technical term used across a range of disciplines–hysteresis–that describes the state where the rate of change in some organism or entity lags behind the rate of change in the environmental factors that act upon that organism or entity.
Lawyers tend not to be as up-to-date on their hysteresis analysis as they perhaps should be. But after a few years and with the benefit of perspective and the clarity of hindsight, even these firms come to see how short-sighted their “X is the way to be successful” refrains really were. If you were around when lawyers resisting the adoption of email, then you know what I mean. It wasn’t all that long ago that I was told by (former) outside counsel that they were afraid that email would lead to clients sending new matters to them at 4PM on a Friday afternoon. It’s hard today to imagine practicing without it. (It’s also hard today to imagine wanting to prevent clients from sending new matters to you).
Which perhaps is why we were struck by yesterday’s almost-true news that the world’s last typewriter factory had closed its doors for good. (We say “almost true” because it appears that Chinese and Indonesian factories still make a vestigially small number of typewriters. But not, it seems, for long.
Dinosaurs have been gone from this world for a very long time. But they ruled it for a much, much longer period–sitting atop the food chain for a period of time about 100 million years longer than the period from their extinction until now.
The same concept holds for typewriters. They seem like such distant anachronisms now, but they were the predominant means of law firm document production for–what?–seventy or eighty years? And have now been gone for maybe twenty? For decades, law firms couldn’t have imagined getting work done without typewriters. Now they can’t imagine getting work done with them.
So, to honor the almost-dead typewriter, do this…Look around your desk–rolltop or otherwise. Take a peek around your office. Walk the halls a bit. Look for all the pieces of technology you use everyday. Now try to pick out the ones mostly likely to make you look back on in a few years, unable to remember how you ever got anything done with it around. Fax machine? Desk phone? Desktop computer? Laser printer? The evolutionary clock is ticking on all of them.
Except the coffeemaker. If Darwin wants our coffeemaker, he can try to come down here and pry it from the highly evolved beak of our Director of Product Design. But he better bring help.