Law & Life

Plugged In

Care of the legal soul in an electronic age

By Margaret Fine

I accompanied my father to court as early as age six or seven. I went to see him present one of his opening arguments. I missed grade school because I was going to learn about the law that special day. The week before our trip, my father kept telling me at breakfast, 'Margaret, opening argument is a story about the facts of the case.' I continue to repeat that phrase in my head today. The day I went to court I remember watching his opening argument in the late morning. I thought that it took forever for my father to get his turn. I couldn't follow most of his argument to the jury. Sometimes it felt as if he yelled at the jury because his voice would get louder as he got more involved in making a point. My father appeared passionate if not emphatic, and his opening argument seemed to take a long time to finish. I spent more than seven hours that day sitting on a hard bench in federal court. I felt the highlight was near the end of the day, when my father's lovely secretary took me outside to buy candy bars and fix my hair.

I had another opportunity to go to court about a year later. My father promised this time that the trip would be exciting. He kept saying that I would really like jury selection because it was kind of like Bingo, where all the numbered balls fly around in a box and then the bailiff picks the balls and calls people to answer questions about being on a jury. The week before I went back for my second trip to court, my father and I talked about our upcoming plans at breakfast nearly every morning. My father was planning for me to watch voir dire, so I'd practice saying voir dire at the breakfast table. Then he explained to me about asking people questions about being on the jury. I would get confused over the kinds of challenges made to remove a juror from being empaneled. I had to keep asking what peremptory meant. My father would try to tell me about bias and representation issues and I generally got the idea that you would want the jurors to give the parties a fair chance.

I liked watching jury selection the day we went to court. I especially liked watching all the people who showed up. I would make bets in my head about who would get picked and who would get excused. I remember one heavy woman with a white patent leather purse whom I kept hoping wouldn't be called. I watched her and felt like she would not pay attention. She liked to close her eyes, nod her head and hum, while tapping her long fingernails on her purse.

My father was very enthusiastic about the law. Sometimes he had trouble separating his legal practice from his personal life. At times, he preferred to use legal procedure to conduct the dinner table conversation over regular talking. The dinner table was another courtroom setting with my father as opposing counsel to everyone -- my mother, my two sisters and me. If a family issue arose, then my father's dialogue turned into cross-examination and you were always on the wrong end. All the time he would make his famous statement, 'wrong again,' to whomever appeared on the witness stand that evening. Usually my father made it seem as though I was wrong even if I was right. I learned how to defend my side of the story being told I was wrong.

My father also liked to settle family disputes with legal procedure. There was one episode where my middle sister, Susan, and I badgered him for two years to get our ears pierced. When Susan was 9 and I was 11, my mother caved in to our constant lobbying and said yes to our pleas. Nevertheless, my father held out and kept telling us that when he was growing up in Virginia, only loose girls wore pierced earrings. Initially, he said that we had to wait until we were 16. Later, he did budge a tiny bit and reduced the age requirement from 16 to 13. But Susan and I were relentless and we wanted our ears pierced that red hot moment. Finally, after pleading nightly at the dinner table, he decided we could have our ears pierced but only if we won a trial against him. Thus the story of the legendary pierced earring trial at the Fine family household.

The trial date was set for two weeks from that Friday night with no extensions or setovers. Our father appointed his mother, our grandmother Emily, to be the judge. We agreed that she would be a suitable judge and Susan called her up to ask if she would accept the appointment. She agreed. Susan and I then had two weeks to prepare our case for trial. For two weeks, we could do nothing but talk about our upcoming litigation: We lived and breathed our case. Susan was primarily in charge of preparing the evidence for trial. To accomplish her mission, she went to school and did a survey on all the girls who had pierced ears and constructed an exhibit for trial. I prepared our argument. The main thrust of it was 'They're our ears and we can do what we want with them.'

On the night of trial, there was a bustle in the house. Everything bordered on hysterical as we gathered after dinner to the upstairs family room for the big event. My sister and I sat together at a dark table as co-counsel, while our father sat to the left. My mother and youngest sister, Rachel, also watched. The trial focused on presenting our case to grandmother, while my father tried to chip away at our case. Several times he told us that he was appalled by our courtroom manners. He said we yelled too much and spent too much time jumping up and down like a couple of hyenas, objecting to everything in sight. Susan and I hardly allowed him to speak, yelling, 'Objection, irrelevant,' as we heard him say to us at the dinner table so often. We claimed that he was trying to distract grandmother from our case. When our grandmother rendered a favorable ruling to us, Susan and I were overjoyed. We hugged and thanked grandmother with fervent enthusiasm for her judicious decision. My father claimed she was partial to us, but he never moved for a mistrial. The next day Susan and I went down to Bedazzled and got our ears pierced. I remember tucking my hair behind my ears at school the next day to show everyone that we had won.

After I graduated from Lewis & Clark College, I moved to Washington, D.C. I had a boyfriend there and could not wait another minute to go to the East Coast. My father gave me $500 to start my future and introduced me to a law firm where I worked as a paralegal before starting law school. At the time, I didn't really know about this law firm. My father and I had an argument over the telephone over two job offers that I received. He told me I was crazy to take any job besides the one with this law firm, which defended high profile white collar criminals. In this telephone conversation, I told my father that I was disgusted with that kind of representation. My father then lectured me on the nature of representation. He made a strong point to me that what mattered was how defendants were represented and that this firm had some of the best attorneys in the country. I soon found out that many of the lawyers had clerked for the Supreme Court or the Ninth or First Circuit Courts of Appeals. I took the job.

From that day on, and even before working in my father's law firm, I was exposed to high caliber legal work. I worked three summers during college for my father. He gave me some tasks to do, like summarizing a deposition and then a whole two-week trial. He never told me I could or couldn't do something; he just showed me how to do it. By the time that I arrived at this law firm, I was generally familiar with the ebb and flow of a legal setting. I knew how to get around a law library and find cases. One of my father's associates taught me to look up cases for him. I knew how to find the courts and file documents and ask how many copies must accompany the original and whether there was a filing fee. I knew what pleadings looked like and how to say 'interrogatories.' I also knew how to Bates stamp and get involved in a document production request.

When I was hired at this D.C. law firm, I was assigned to go on a big document production that was located in New England. I went with another paralegal who had about four years experience. For two months, I went back and forth between Washington, D.C. and New England. I would go up on Monday on the train and head for the company's damp and mildewed basement. Then I would help find and haul documents out of the company basement and back to the posh hotel where we would begin to prepare them for copying. I did this for days on end until we collected all of the documents. Afterwards I had all these documents brought to D.C. and every Monday I would copy documents for a full day at a stretch to send to the opposing side. The problem with the documents was that they were all in these itty bitty pieces and I would have to remove the staples before copying. At one point I spent three weeks pulling staples out of documents from morning until night. I would wear my Walkman and listen to music. When I moaned to my father about my job duties, he would respond, 'You are the most glamorous staple puller in all of Washington, D.C.'

I learned a great deal from that document production, which amounted to more than a quarter million documents. During the whole event there was a particular project that gave me 'noticed' in the office: I thought up a simple formula to assess financial data in a number of ways on a computer. The document project seemed to risk discernible error if was organized and calculated by hand. With a computer, I figured out how to assess a large amount of financial data in a way that was simple, clear and understandable to the parties involved. Nevertheless, computers were pretty new to the legal workplace, except to recent college graduates like me who had used them in school and were itching to use them at work. At that time, only secretaries used computers at this law firm. The rationale behind the rule, I was told, was that only secretaries really knew how to type and lawyers and paralegals did not, or at least they were not fast enough to be cost effective.

As a result of this rule, I was not supposed to use the computer. This rule frustrated me because it limited my legal work. So I tried to use a computer when I could and hoped no one would notice. Usually, no one said anything and there wasn't a problem except one time the office manager got mad at me for using one. By that time I had learned how to use a computer to organize and analyze financial data and the project had worked out well: Not only was one partner pleased, but a name partner was also pleased. As a result, I could use the computer when needed. I went on to create an exhibit database in a sizable insurance defense case and to summarize depositions expediently. About that time, it seemed as though everyone was getting access to a computer at work, which was unprecedented for this traditional East Coast firm. I even noticed some of the attorneys sheepishly ordering laptops for themselves while I was there. I was lucky to help initiate the process of integrating new technology into a legal environment.

Prior to his death in 1990, my father never came to terms with the computer or the electronic age. Generally, he had the luxury to rely on a secretary to type his documents and take dictation. Sometimes I noticed that he used his computer screen monitor to paste yellow stickees with everyday reminders. If he were here today, I wonder how he would react to a changing legal world that is now supplementing electronic data for paper. My father was attached to paper as a form of conventional life that he drew close to every work day. He lived in a time when he could depend on paper and avoid understanding computers and a range of electronic data to litigate a case.

Times have changed. I wonder how my father would have reacted to litigating a case in which the parties focus more on getting things rather than paper: hard drives, removable storage media, backup and archive tapes and cartridges, computers. I also wonder how he would have reacted to fact finding which is based more on uncovering electronic data files, Internet usage and a range of messaging systems than the printed page. To survive, my father would have needed to learn a new way to relate to his legal world. He would have needed to align his values with a new knowledge process designed to incorporate computers and a range of electronic data into a legal practice.

My father was inclined to understand technology and how his legal work fit into a larger global picture: He had earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in electrical engineering before attending law school. But he could be stubborn about his attachment to paper. I remember arguing with him for a laptop computer before I started law school in 1987. He thought I only needed a typewriter and bond paper, but later relented and gave me a laptop to start law school. As a practical matter, he knew how to orient himself towards an evolving process if his legal work depended on it. It seems as though he would have figured out a way to reexamine his assumptions about paper and to handle electronic data in the course of his legal practice.

Undoubtedly, my father would have needed to take a leap of faith about using electronic data and focus on knowing how to get, process, use and present a range of electronic data in a case. In addition, he would have needed to apply his own expertise about the discovery process to understand a new situation using electronic data and not necessarily paper to litigate a case. Technology did not define the way in which my father practiced law. Nevertheless, he would have needed to know about technology and its applications to assess the merits of computers and electronic data in a case. There are certain categories of electronic litigation that require understanding to heed this change in circumstance, including how to inventory electronic data, convert electronic data and paper to one compatible format, store all data in a database or web-based repository, search it for certain facts in a case and present it as exhibits at trial. There is also a need to know how to select and prepare a computer forensics expert to testify at trial on complex issues like data restoration and encryption.

Essentially, my father was a traditional lawyer and also an idealist: He had faith in the American political system, our judicial system and the Constitution. As a lawyer for franchisees and distributors, he spent much of his career defending the interests of small business and pioneering work in franchise law. His legal work was meaningful because it connected him to this world; his life work was sacred because it connected him to a cause greater than himself. Today the law is familiar to me in the same way that it was mattered to my father, which is mostly as someone who cares about advocacy and dedication to a calling. Despite his death, my father still occupies a strong presence in my mind and I tend to keep the connection alive by staying near the law and having relationships with people who define themselves in a similar way. I feel as if this was important to my father and my connection to him is based on establishing a continuing legacy through my being a part of and contributing to the legal profession today.


Margaret Fine is a consultant and an attorney with more than 10 years litigation and legal services experience, including extensive background in legal marketing and public relations. From 1996-99, she worked for Stoel Rives supporting attorneys in employment litigation and business practice. She can be contacted at

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