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Huge productivity increases for most in-house lawyers in the past decades

For every hour today’s in-house lawyer works, productivity far exceeds what was possible as recently as 20 years ago. That’s a broad claim for a tiny post, but let me draw on economic history, inspired by Deirdre N. McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (Univ. Chic. 2010) at Chapter 6. A famous study looked at the cost of lumen hours (lighting) per hour of human work needed to pay for it so I will try something analogous with “page-letter hours”: the hours of law department work needed to handle a one-page letter.

Imagine the corporate lawyer of the ancient 1980’s who handwrote a letter on a yellow pad with a fountain pen. [Don’t laugh, but a ballpoint pen “eases handwriting by a factor of perhaps six over quill and ink.”] A secretary struggled a bit with the handwriting, but typed the letter on a manual Remington. Back it went to the inbox of the lawyer, who revised the hard copy and returned it – perhaps more than once. Then, carbon copies were carefully typed, envelopes prepared, stamped. Four days later the recipient’s letter opener slit into it. Meanwhile multiple copies had been filed, hopefully correctly, in manila folders and redwells on shelves.

For the next 20 years a steady tide of productivity flooded in. Dictation equipment, electric typewriters, and erasable typewriters. Photocopy machines reproduced everywhere. Vydec and Wang and the IBM PC ushered in word processing. Fax machines sped delivery, and then the Internet kicked everything to a speedier, cheaper and easier level. The secretary disappeared, templates for letters became routine, PDF locked down documents, and the one-page letter arrived in seconds after a few minutes of work. The filing happened automatically with document management software. Or, perhaps, the letter became completely obsolete, replaced by an e-mail alone or a Skype call.

On account of technology improvements, lawyers’ output has more than kept up with thickets of regulations, expanded litigation, global commerce, and volumes of new statutes. What may have taken two hours of total time may now take ten minutes, a productivity gain of 1,000 percent! The new letter may even be better, what with templates and cut and paste, so the productivity gains multiply by quality improvements.