Professor's article traces technological changes to the law office

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

LAWRENCE – If not for Herman Melville, most of us probably would have no idea what a scrivener is. And if not for the advance of technology, Bartleby and his colleagues might still have similar jobs today.

Michael Hoeflich, John H. and John M. Kane Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Kansas School of Law, has published an article exploring the history of the scrivener in the American legal office and how advancing technology not only eliminated the profession but changed the way law is practiced. Hoeflich authored “From Scriveners to Typewriters: Document Production in the Nineteenth Century Law Office,” for The Green Bag, “An Entertaining Journal of Law.”

As Melville spelled out in his famous short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” the titular profession was paramount to business in the legal office of the day. Not only did they copy, proofread and verify accuracy of legal documents, they held a respected, well-paid position and were sometimes considered as important to the office as the lawyer. The article will eventually be a chapter in an upcoming book.

“I’m very interested in the everyday practice of law, what the management involves and the history of the business,” Hoeflich said. “I thought it would be interesting to see how the practice of law has evolved in the United States and what we can learn from it.”

Just as they do today, law offices of the past produced a large amount of documents. Without the scrivener the multiple copies would not have been made, and files would not have been kept. However, copying and writing documents by hand was a tedious and time-consuming method. Hoeflich’s research shows that by the early 19th century primitive copying devices such as “copy presses” began to appear in law offices. As the century progressed early versions of typewriters took precedence. The devices were nothing short of revolutionary in the legal office, not only making document production faster, but ushering in social change and shifting power dynamics within the office.

“Scriveners were very quickly replaced by typists,” Hoeflich said. “And typists were almost all women. Now why would that be the case? It’s because typists were paid much less. It was also the introduction of women in the American law office.”

Where a good scrivener could produce about 30 words per minute, a good typist could produce about 100. The result was increased speed, efficiency and a healthier bottom line. Hoeflich argues it also placed much more importance on the lawyer. The typewriter, along with carbon paper, which allowed production of several documents simultaneously, drastically changed the law office by the beginning of the 20th century and also ushered in the appearance of what became an office staple: the rolltop desk. Hoeflich’s article includes multiple historical ads promoting the desks which offered new ways to store files and featured typewriter bays.

“The items that are now antiques truly were revolutionary and did change how law was practiced, just as computers and new technologies are doing now,” Hoeflich said.

The article goes on to explore how the technology advances and phasing out of scriveners increased profits and changed workflow, and how the resulting social changes in law offices related to and reflected those happening in broader society. The article will be a chapter in an upcoming book that explores numerous angles of legal history, including how 19th century lawyers dressed, decorated their offices, found clients and used family connections to form business. Hoeflich said he enjoys studying legal and social history much in the way that genealogists enjoy learning about their familial past. What happened in years past can not only offer lessons about how and why we got where we are, he says, but provide perspective on how current practices and trends can shape the future.

“Professional history to some degree is like individual memory,” Hoeflich said. “While we might not be doomed to repeat it, we can certainly learn lessons from it.”

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