03 August 2014

Cyberspace May 2014

The final piece

The Journal of the Law Society of New South Wales is changing, and this is the last journey through cyberspace that I’ll write about. The title of this column has, for the last 16 years, been entitled “Journeys Through Cyberspace” because it has been a journey in terms of the evolution of the internet, my career, technology, societal change and communication. This column has always been written in the first person, because it’s been my journey through cyberspace (a word which is pretty naff today, but in fact remains useful) and a lot of people were interested in coming along on the journey. This piece is an incredibly brief conclusion to a 16 year journey.

While this is the last piece for the Journal of the Law Society of New South Wales, I’ll keep writing regularly on my main blog at http://blog.calvin.it.

At the age of 50 I am a technology geek because that is the world in which I live. In 1983 when I was 20 I had never touched a personal computer (nor had most people), and my technology fix came from being a member of the armed forces (an amazing hand-held computer that could plot our mortar shoots), and tweaking car and motorcycle engines on weekends. Technology takes many shapes. I find it amusing that the forefront of technology today is largely to be found in motor vehicles.

My sole exposure to computing in the early 80s was because of a lecturer at UNSW named Graham Greenleaf, who had typed a few hundred full-text judgements on animal law into the School of Engineering’s VAX (a VAX 4000?). From the law school we could use an acoustic coupler to call the VAX at 300 baud (I can't describe how slow this is), and search for keywords in cases.  Today Graham is an AM, Professor, and co-founder of AustLII, which formed the foundation of legal research in Australia & many other countries.  Speaking of AustLII, I also remember having a conversation with (now Professor) Andrew Mowbray in the early 90s, who was also instrumental in the founding of AustLII. I had just read that someone had come up with a way of using Compact Discs to store computer information, and I was interested in his thoughts. We both puzzled over how on earth that might work. The rest is history.

For reasons that aren't clear to me, over the last few years I’ve become a bit of a gun property lawyer, but it appeals to my interest in contracts and the law in the real world. However, through this column I’ve tried to show how cyberspace and law and the real world work together. I’ve been gratified by all the email I’ve received over the last decade or two (remembering that when I first wrote this column, only 22% of NSW lawyers had an email address). Actually, I ended up writing this column because of a meeting of the Law Society Technology sub-committee, chaired by my then colleague Patrick Fair (who has flourished in his technology & law career and is the chair of the Internet Industry Association). The committee thought it might be worthwhile if the Journal had a column on this internet thing, and I put my hand up. The rest is history (again).

Today my relationship with technology is pretty clear - it enables me to do my job anywhere anytime. Last week I had my car serviced, and for four hours I sat a desk at Renault over their WiFi with a VPN connection to Sydney Water, and punched out four solid hours of work. In a similar vein, when I worked at the ABC I was astonished at the amount of technology in the business and how most of it “simply worked.” Used correctly, technology really is an enabler and not a barrier.

In the early 90s I was a construction litigator at Phillips Fox, and most of those cases were document intensive. I managed to work out a way to use a newish product named FileMaker Pro (now one of the world's most popular databases) and a Macintosh SE30 to capture the information from the documents into a useful database which could produce summaries. These assisted in taking witness statements and finding documents. In fact, during our opening in a Construction List matter our opponent said that we had not pleaded a point we were opening on. A free-text search of the 104 page summons shut him down in a few seconds. They were heady days, and this was, to us, amazing.

During the early 90s a number of the major law firms such as Blake Dawson Waldron, Phillips Fox, Henry Davis York, the Law Society and more were using the Macintosh computers. We had something called document management. It opened my eyes to how electronic information could be managed – thank you Dave Masters. At that time the current Windows operating system was Windows 3.1. I remember having a chat with a Senior Associate at Blakes named Elizabeth Broderick about the future of lawyers who chose a technology path. We both agreed that we were atypical in our career path, but there was probably a future. Elizabeth became a partner in the firm and is now the Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

In about 1994 Phillips Fox was running Macintoshes with Microsoft Mail. There was no concept of Internet e-mail. I had read in a magazine how one could get an Internet e-mail address and send and receive e-mail to other people. I recall contacting Robert Elz in Melbourne to see if we could register phillipsfox.com.au. He was the sole manager of the.au namespace in these early days. We installed Eudora on the Macintoshes and setup an account with Dialix, based at Sydney University. Twice a day, initially, the modem would call Dialix and conduct a UUCP exchange to send and receive email. While this was going on, I remember demonstrating using the web browser Lynx, a purely text based browser, to show how we could read poems from a university in America. The lawyers in my office were astounded. Shortly afterwards I received my first spam, which so offended me that I e-mailed the gentleman involved about it. He telephoned me immediately to apologise, saying that he had purchased a mailing list which he thought he was able to use.

In late 1996 I was working on a matter for London underwriters on a court case known as Estate Mortgage, which was heading for hearing in the Supreme Court of Victoria. There were so many parties involved that an entire floor of the building was leased and fitted out for the courtroom and the parties. Andersen Consulting, working for the receivers, had digitised many thousands of documents relating to the collapse of the fund (a first in litigation at the time), and a way of displaying these at trial was needed. A young Victorian barrister had some good ideas, and wrote a web based evidence and transcript system that that he called Lantern. He sat down with me and showed me the beta of Windows NT 4 and how it could be used to receive and display information over the Web. Today it is named Ringtail and is one of the premier litigation support products in the world.

Towards the end of the 90s I was given for review what looked like a shiny river rock, which turned out to be one of the first Apple Airport Expresses. Together with a very expensive laptop and a very expensive wireless card, I was able to walk around my house and, as I put it in my column, surf in the bath tub. Of course, my house had a second phone line which was purely to dial into the firm to hold up my Internet connection. At that time, many people had a single phone line at home and many a download session was interrupted by someone else picking up one of the extensions. It was quite common for employees to use their business as their ISP and Phillips Fox had 18 dial in lines. I wrote about how the Internet was a good idea, but would never take off until it was "always on". And of course the rest is history (again).
In 2008 I bought one of the first netbooks with a 7 inch screen to travel overseas extensively. Its usefulness was mind blowing, yet today one needs to compare the 1 inch plastic lump with a 7 inch screen and compare it with my Nexus 7 or iPad. But even in 2008, sitting in a cafe using the free Wi-Fi on one of these tiny computers was straight out of Star Wars.

In April 2008 I wrote about Apple giving consideration to introducing a product in Australia known as the iPhone. At that time I was using a BlackBerry Pearl, and also had a Sony S500, which for at this time was an amazing phone. It also had a great camera, which reminds me of the time when I met a Nokia programmer who showed me a preproduction model of a mobile phone with a camera built in. It seemed like a ridiculous idea to me and it would never fly. The rest is history.

The development of litigation discovery over the last 16 years has been a difficult journey, and I still don't think we are there yet. I spent a reasonable amount of my career at the forefront of development, and I am pleased to leave it to others. I wrote the first draft of what was to become the first practice note in relation to electronic discovery in the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Today's version is light years beyond what I wrote, but I still think we have a long way to go.

 It has been unbelievably exciting to have been involved in the development of the law and technology since 1990. I am definitely not finished yet, but this is a good time to document some of the progress. The key to the future is making technology invisible to lawyers so they can just get on with the main game. In 1993 I was badgered online for setting up a USENET group named aus.mountainbiking. I was asked what it had to do with technology. My answer was that technology should be able to help me be a better mountain biker. Technology is not an end in itself, it is just an enabler.