Although it happened only once, the memory is vivid. Knowing that a fight was brewing, I slipped a can of spinach into my school uniform pants pocket, to be opened and eaten just before hostilities broke out. With that I could be confident that sudden surge of energy would power me to a quick and painless victory. After all, it performed reliably for Popeye, delivering countless victories over Bluto and eventually Olive Oyl’s heart and hand. Unfortunately, to speed the process, I opened and replaced the can. The humiliation of spinach leaking down my leg, coupled with with the terrible taste of the now-linty vegetable made a lasting impression.
All unnecessary, as it turns out. The relationship between spinach and Popeye may have been a mistake, nothing more than a copy and paste error first made in 1870.
According to Samuel Arbesman in his book, The Half-Life of Facts, German chemist Erich von Wolf made an error on the iron content of green vegetables while transcribing his notes, giving spinach an undeserved bump as a super source of iron, to ten times its actual level. Arbesman credits that mistake as the cause of Popeye’s creators’ decision in the 1930s to name spinach as his source of super-strength.
While Arbesman’s story itself proved apocryphal, it’s a lesson TransAlta, the large Canadian power generator, would have appreciated before it took a $24 million hit caused by its own cut and paste error. Certainly, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, the prestigious NYC real estate law firm, would appreciate the point as well, as their client has been ordered to pay $16 million for the mistake their lawyers made that has been described as a simple “scrivener’s error.”
How many errors are acceptable from your lawyer? Your doctor?
A 2009 survey by a federal agency described professionals’ presumptions of a 24% error rate generated by copy and paste mistakes among medical practitioners. It almost makes you want to review the medical orders for yourself.
A friend engaged in an acquisition that is scheduled to close next month is using a specialized boutique firm for legal counsel on the transaction. By his count, the “final” documents sent to all parties for signature included more than 20 material errors, including an incorrect purchaser’s name, location, and purchase price. When my friend pointed out what he considers a significant error rate, his lawyer described the mistakes as inadvertent “typos” and nothing to be worried about.
The day is here when “typos” in documents prepared by lawyers should be unacceptable and the practices which allow or even encourage them considered both unprofessional and unehtical. Lawyers – and others! – who continue to use antiquated production practices in the place of powerful and accurate alternatives will risk being tagged for malpractice.
What’s to be done?
Two hundred years ago, lawyers’ clients were an exclusive group composed of the top 1%: land owners, industrial barons, large banks, governments. Clients’ expectations and lawyers’ business models were in harmony: hand-crafted service at bespoke prices. Today, the business of law has been democratized as clients have morphed into retail customers, while the practice of the profession strains to remain an art.
The overwhelming majority of today’s clients would no more afford a lawyer who hand-crafts all of his or her work than they would want to purchase a Patek Phillipe, a Vacheron, or a Rolex Submariner wristwatch. They may be beautiful works of art; they are certainly expensive; but no one will confuse them with the accurate timetellers made in the highly automated workshops at Citizens and Timex.
The sooner lawyers turn to technology to replace cut and paste in their actual work product, the better off they and we will be.