This is the first segment of a three-part series titled Personal Injury & Digital Technology: Where We Are & Where We Want to Be that analyzes how digital technology is impacting personal injury actions. Recent data from the Pew Research Center indicates that roughly 95% of Americans currently own a mobile (cell) phone and 77% of those are smartphones. Approximately 80% of adults in the U.S. own either a desktop or laptop computer. We have seen technology transition virtually all aspects of our culture, particularly how we communicate and share information. Technology has impacted education and workplaces, with an ever-increasing ability to attend college remotely or the ability for employees to work from home. We have seen the tremendous impact in entertainment, healthcare, retail, and transportation. Although the adaptation may be at a slower rate, digital technology has also transformed the practice of law.
The Office Environment 40 Years Ago
Technology within the law office environment has changed over the last 30 to 40 years. In telephone communication, the office landline was once the lone means of voice communication, meaning you had to be in the office to receive calls and check messages. The carbon-copy secretarial phone message books evolved into voicemail messaging, which allowed you listen to private messages that contained greater detail and also to retrieve messages remotely by calling into the office. Written correspondence was conducted slowly by direct mail. The fax machine was a tremendous breakthrough that we still see remnants of today. The office environment 30 years ago involved a vast amount of paperwork. Documents initially were generated using a typewriter, then the electric typewriter, and then progressed to word processing units. Photocopiers really began to surface in the 1970's and were critically important in legal practice, which used a lot of paper documents.
Advertising & Marketing
Personal injury firms did not market to consumers like they do today, as marketing by attorneys was widely considered unorthodox, unethical, or illegal. In 1977, the case of Bates v. State Bar of Arizona found that restricting legal marketing efforts was contrary to the First Amendment. This change involving “commercial free speech” led to several core advertising mediums during the 1980s and 1990s that included Yellow Page advertisements, print advertising in newspapers, and direct mail and television commercials to some extent. The new ability to advertise began to make the public more aware of civil litigation.
Research & Informational Access
The manner in which attorneys conducted research was limited to printed materials. Attorneys often spent many hours searching through law books containing statutes and case studies, as well as print journals. A file containing the documents for a single case may have changed hands dozens of times before the case was completed. Access to court documents required physically going to the clerk's office, or having a courier do so. Busy practices had entire rooms dedicated to file storage, which has diminished with the emergence of electronic document storage.
Discovery & Depositions
Discovery, the process of exchanging information between the parties, has been made tremendously more efficient. Prior to e-discovery, the research and collection of data were significantly more time-consuming without electronic access. The sources of discovery materials have greatly expanded to include print documents, emails, voicemails, texts, instant messages, social media posts and more. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure assigns responsible for parties to preserve data that exists in electronic format. Depositions in personal injury cases, such as interviews with witnesses, can now be conducted using video technology that allows their testimony to be heard and seen.
Vehicle Accidents & Technology
Automobile accidents have always been a core aspect of personal injury practice. One example of digital advancement is found in claims involving commercial motor vehicles. For years, commercial motor vehicle drivers would maintain paper logs that documented key factors such as hours of driving time, truck safety inspection records etc. Recently, federal regulators have required that all these vehicles be equipped with Electronic Logging Devices (ELDs) that are also capable of recording driver behavior as it relates to accidents, which is potentially valuable evidence in injury claims.