I was listening to Radio Five this morning, to a debate on the NHS and at one stage an expert told the listeners that the NHS was far too behind in modern technology – by way of disparaging illustration he said “Most GP’s are still using faxes, for goodness sake”
Which reminded me of the apocryphal story of the High Court Judge sitting in a Court far away from London, reaching the end of the case and realising that he has left all of his notes and preparation for delivery of his imminent judgment back at his London home. He mentions this dilemma, and someone helpfully suggests, “Fax it up, m’lord” – to which the Judge sadly responds, “yes, I’m afraid it rather does”
And that led me to think that anyone who began practicing law in the last ten years would probably not understand that joke. We have a fax machine in our office, but I can’t remember the last time anyone used it in anger. All that I ever see come out of it are single page spam adverts – invariably telling us that if we have had an accident in the workplace, we could get compensation – hugely informative stuff of that type.
When I first started working in law, which was a long time ago, I was at the beck and call of the fax machine. I don’t know that I want to give precise dates, but by way of indication my Local Authority was using a junior barrister named Cherie Booth and we were dimly aware that her husband was an MP but had no idea who he was.
The fax machine and I were very close. Our first version had no programmable numbers, you had to dial them all manually. And it didn’t use ordinary paper, but some horrid shiny stuff akin to the toilet paper in schools at the time (and possibly prisons now). When we received our evidence, we had to fax this out. It had to go to the Court, to three firms of solicitors (mum, dad, Guardian) and to our counsel. So each piece of final evidence, I, as the junior dogsbody, had to fax out five times. I was junior dogsbody for eight lawyers at the time, so there was a LOT of final evidence, most of it having to be sent out on a Friday afternoon.
And the fax couldn’t send and receive at the same time, so if we had one lawyer with evidence ready to go out, and another waiting to receive the faxed copy from the social worker, that would be a juggling act with the social services dogsbody and I on telephones “Can I start sending it now?” “Just wait, ten seconds… oh damn, the one to Thimbleby Fisher has jammed again”
If you aren’t old, like me – for example, my colleague Gimson, who does not believe me that we didn’t always have stuff on television whenever you turned it on and that for about five years daytime television consisted of Pebble Mill then three hours of “Pages from Ceefax”, it probably seems ridiculous to think that I was spending close to eight hours a week doing nothing other than feeding paper into a fax machine and swearing copiously when two pages went through at once. I had to do this, because there was no way of sending these documents from one computer to another.
The social worker would write their statement out by hand, take it to a typing pool, a typist would type it up, the social worker would give it to the social services dogsbody, they’d fax it to me, I’d take it to the lawyer who would check it. If it was okay, then I would fax it out to everyone. And then when they got it, which would often be at about seven pm, because I’d be doing this for eight cases on a Friday, they’d have to fax it out to their counsel.
And as archaic and dreadful as that sounds – this was an improvement. This was cutting edge tech – it was instantaneous compared to the system that had been around before I started, when you’d be DX-ing or posting it out and it would arrive a day or two later – usually just after you’d left for Court on the case you needed the document on.
None of us had computers on our desks – I remember that coming in, and many of the lawyers being mortified that this was taking up space on their desk where their files and notes would have been. When we finally got email, it meant that we no longer had to have the social work statements faxed to us, and that we could make changes and amendments to documents without having to get a typist to do it. (It also ended one of the other curiousities, which was that I was keeping an index for all of those cases, which I was doing by making handwritten annotations to the typed index as new documents came in, and then getting it typed about once a month – if the case was going wrong, I’d be squeezing more and more annotations into a tiny space).
But we still couldn’t send documents out by email, because most of the other solicitors didn’t have it straight away.
I can’t really imagine doing the job now without a computer, being able to see a document and edit it and perfect it and send it back and forth until it is just right, then simply send it out to everyone who needs to see it in a task that takes less than 30 seconds when it used to take an afternoon. I can’t really now, even after such a short time, really get straight in my mind what it was like to only be able to look at your emails if you were sitting at your desk – to not be able to read them on the way to Court or whilst waiting for Facts and Reasons. And that’s a change of only the last four years or so.
The really odd thing of course, is that without blackberries, and email, and computers, and word processing – without even photocopiers, the lawyers in the early days of the Children Act got all this done – and they actually did it in shorter timescales and with less delays than we manage now with all of our assistance. That’s rather like learning that Formula One cars in the 1930s were faster than modern ones (they weren’t)
I wonder what is coming in the next few years, and how it will make our lives easier, but how as Parkinson’s Law shows us, work expands to fill the time available to do it.