Library Science

A tip of the hat to SD Rural Lawyer for pointing out Susan G. Fowler’s study: “Results of Participant Observation in the Fifth Judicial District,”


In this 2007, Ms. Fowler takes a look at the research needs of the average rural Kansas lawyer and finds that because the rural lawyer is a generalist, their research needs tend to be limited to the basics (case-law updates, statutory changes, access to state resources) and they do not spend a great deal of time or money on specialized research materials or access to expert opinions. All well and good if you are planning on how best to restore a rural law library so that it will best serve it’s clientele.

What interested me were Ms. Fowler’s observations on the information processing skill and daily activities of the rural lawyer (not that I participated in the study, seeing one’s day reduced to frequency counts by an outside observer is something of an out-of-body experience – the initial reaction of “it can’t be” is quickly followed by “now that I think about it…”). So, for those of you who have any doubts about the adrenaline-packed, action-filled, exciting life of the rural lawyer, you are absolutely right – the top 5 things rural lawyers do are:

  1. Talk on the phone (communication reduces surprises)
  2. Use a some form of technology to obtain or transfer legal information (the adaptive generalist is always relearning)
  3. Prep for court (there is a marked preference to settle out of court, but you never know…)
  4. work on a case
  5. build relationships (rural lawyers practice in small ponds – adversarial relationships are left at the courthouse door – so building professional/personal ties to the rural bar and to the community brings in business and establishes credibility)

Ms. Fowler also observed that rural lawyers are information power-users (constantly assessing information as they learn and relearn) and hard core multitaskers – though rural lawyers tend to be “time slicers” rather than “parallel processors” when it comes to multitasking; preferring to quickly switch between tasks (spending a few minutes on one before moving to the next) in a round-robin fashion. This form of multi-tasking seems to be facilitated by the rural lawyer’s preference for print rather than digital resources.

So there you have it – a brief look at the life of the rural lawyer through the eyes of the rural law librarian.

The Four Tech Groups – Balance in Your Tech Diet

Sham Harga had run a successful eatery for many years by always smiling, never extending credit, and realizing that most of his customers wanted meals properly balanced between the four food groups: sugar, starch, grease, and burnt crunchy bitsTerry Pratchett, Men at Arms

In the spirit of Sham Harga, one runs a successful law practice by always smiling, never extending credit and having your tech properly balanced between the four tech groups: security, redundancy, utility, and cost. These are dynamic forces often in opposition with each other. If I want my systems to be perfectly secure, I must sacrifice utility (for others not to access my tech, I must also limit how I may access my tech) and invest in cost (firewalls, DMZ’s, encrypted communication, and 24/7 monitoring come with large price tags). Should I wish perfect utility – unlimited access, 24/7/365 availability – I must sacrifice security and invest in redundancy and cost. But there is a point where all four forces lie in balance – costs comfortably within our budget, security contained comfortably between extreme paranoia and laxness, and systems that are sufficiently redundant so that they can attend to the tasks required of them now and for the reasonably foreseeable future with only minor, rectifiable hiccups.

While there are undoubtedly precise mechanisms that will spit out one’s ROI when investing $X in amount Y of security or amount Z of redundancy, this point of balance is more than a simple evaluation of a couple of the forces in isolation. This is more a matter of personal intuition for what we are evaluating is a fluid system and the balance we achieve today may not be the right balance tomorrow. It is a bit like yoga – today I find my balance in child’s pose and even though I might find it in mountain or tree tomorrow, right now a simple solution addresses my needs and that is all that matters for the moment; let tomorrow bring a new balance with it when tomorrow comes.

Yet being in tech balance is more than simply being able to find the right balance between the four tech groups – there is finding balance while engulfed in the ever-present white noise of our interconnected tech; of finding those small moments of quiet midst the cacophony of social networks, list-serves, RSS feeds, blogs, and e-mail if for no other reason than to find some time to actually do some paying work. I find that when the din becomes too much and the well-considered advice of the efficiency experts no longer lifts me above the noise I take a retreat from my tech for a few days – deliberately disconnecting from the cacophony of interconnectedness – choosing instead to regress to more primal state of tech. One in which afternoon naps are more likely to be interrupted by the dulcet tones of a landline than the strident chirp of a cellphone and where word processing is a product of ink on paper rather than electrons on phosphor.

Admittedly, putting one’s tech on hiatus is not easy (a small town’s lack of reliable connectivity goes a long way in helping me ignore tech’s siren song) but I find that doing so reminds me to have a more deliberate, purposeful relationship with my tech; that my tech is there to facilitate my mission, not dictate it. Seems everything needs to be rebooted ever now and then.

Retro or Different

It’s pretty clear now that what looked like it might have been some kind of counterculture is, in reality, just the plain old chaos of undifferentiated weirdness.Jerry Garcia

Different seems to be the watchword for today’s new breed of lawyers; these rising stars with their different philosophies on billing, on marketing, and on the practice of law in general. We are seeing the birth of a legal counterculture, marked not by long-hair and tie-dyed T-shirts but by iPads, smartphones, and SaaS clouds. Out here in small town America, the trappings of old, republican, conservative law die hard (there is still the expectation of brick and mortar offices, three-piece suits, and varnished oak desks) and one has to sneak different into one’s practice slowly.

It is not that clients aren’t receptive to different, it is just that they really don’t care about it. Clients are interested in outcomes; more specifically, they are interested in paying you for solutions to their particular problem – they don’t care about the process or what technology you use to expedite your research, they just want the solution to be palatable. For the rural lawyer, technology’s role is not as practice differentiator (well, there may be a few referral sources that will be impressed by a law firm’s use of technology to implement a stream-lined, systems-based approach to handling client matters, but the average client won’t care if you have a new smartphone or a 5 year old flip phone); technology’s role is to simply improve your efficiency and reduce your costs.

In my one-man-band solo practice, technology is what keeps me sane. It allows me to have a human voice answer my phone and direct calls to me and it allows me to spend 30 minutes dictating a contract rather than 2 hours typing all without the overhead of having to employ actual staff. Technology allows me to run a paperless office secure in the knowledge that between my RAID arrays and backup software my business data will always be readily accessible. Tickler systems keep me on task, and e-mail filters help me manage information distraction.

The only thing different about my technology is that it’s not different – no cutting edge open source software, no public SaaS clouds, no smartphones or tablets. The only new piece of technology I could really use is a typewriter (I’m really fed up with filling out the 3-part Certificate of Real Estate Value by hand). Perhaps retro will be the new different.

Flora, Fauna and Balance

BalanceThere is one thing I have to say about moving a law office – don’t pack your checklist with all the rest of your papers. Took me 3 days to find it again and trying to tie up all the sundry loose ends from memory is a harrowing endeavor. You are constantly plagued with the nagging doubt that you’ve forgotten something. The only positive thing about this whole exercise (outside of the lower rent) was having scheduled some vacation time at the end of May (the great thing about being solo is that my boss is pretty easy-going when it comes to providing a little down time when needed).

For those not familiar with the idiosyncrasies of a rural solo practice, you have to realize that, unless you actually leave the vicinity of your practice (generally 500 miles is the minimum safe distance) vacation does not translate into time away from the office – rather, it translates into less time in the office (or dealing with client matters) and a more relaxed dress code. How much less time is highly variable and is highly dependent on the number of fires that crop up – rural clients understand that about the need to grab a little time away from the office from time to time (especially when the days are sunny, the fish are biting, or there’s hay to put up) and know that if you are on vacation, phone calls and e-mails may not always be returned the same day, but closings have to be done, bills have to be paid, invoices have to be sent, and court dates have to be made even if they do encroach on your time off. My latest vacation was about par for the course  – 4 half days in the office and 2 half days working from home out of 10 working days away.

The upshot was that I had plenty of time to clear various assorted bits flotsam and jetsam out of the barn, garage, house, and my mind with time left over to put up first crop hay. Nothing like physical labor and the relative quiet of the rural country side to clear out the noise of the e-mail, cell phone, social media connected world. By the end, I was ready to head back to the practice ready to dive into this summer’s version of adventures in solo practice – that is until my 5:00 AM greeting by a highly affectionate and horrendously odoriferous dog snapped my synapses out of my vacation induced bonhomie. There is nothing quite like a freshly skunked dog to focus one’s attention – no slow immersion into the work-a-day world, this is the jump-in-the-deep-end-oh-man-that-water’s-cold introduction to reality. This morning’s activities became focused on the single task of reducing the pungent cloud currently enveloping the dog without transferring it to those of us who would shortly be interacting with other people. There is little that can actually remove skunk smell from dog hair (only time can do that), the best one can hope for is to get to it while it is still fresh and remove enough of it so that the dog’s mere presence no longer brings tears to one’s eyes. It’s a battle best fought with degreaser, baking soda, and elbow grease – the folk remedies of tomato juice and peppermint mouthwash simply leave the dog smelling like a bowl of Tabbouleh that’s gone off.

Balance 0, skunk 1

Serendipity and the Wild Paradigm

Barn Fire

Barn + Hay + Match = DISASTER

March is well on its way to being written up as a decidedly odd month; strangely dry, unusually warm, and replete with eccentric client requests – law school really does not prepare one for the question: “where can I get a good medical kit for disasters?” Now, from a client’s viewpoint, I suppose that a lawyer’s stock in trade does center around disasters – after all, when the average client walks through the door looking to hire a lawyer something in their life has really blown up in a big way – though I am not sure that there is a 1 to 1 mapping between being able to resolve disasters of a legal kind and being able to handle disasters mother nature throws our way.

Now, my search for a good medical kit lead me through the highways and byways of the internet and along the way, serendipity re-acquainted me with Don Lancaster (or at least a Don Lancaster inspired “nickel generator”). For those of you unfamiliar with the geek world’s paleolithic era (the 1970’s), Don Lancaster was an advocate for the concept of micro-scale businesses (at that time the tech world’s solo practitioner) arguing that it was only this type of business that was agile enough to recognize and react to the coming (remember, this is the 70’s) paradigm shifts. Continue reading