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Scott Graber

I’m unhappy in this new, remote world

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By Scott Graber

It is Saturday, and I’m in North Adams, Mass. It’s maybe 65 degrees here in the Berkshires and the temperature will likely climb into the low 80s later today. It is, however, not my purpose to boast about the fact that I’m wearing a gray woolen sweater and heavy-duty hiking socks.

At the moment my wife and I are located in a textile mill, situated on the Hoosic River, the Eclipse Mill having ceded its lint, non-stop noise and dawn-to-dusk labor to China, Vietnam and Bangladesh. Manufacturing is largely gone from Western Massachusetts although nearby towns do make wax-coated cheddar cheese and some continue to distill-down sap and bottle that distillation as maple syrup.

Many towns have small, liberal arts colleges (Amherst, Smith and Williams) who do manufacture young, ambitious graduates who move to Boston but will reliably write endowment checks for the rest of their lives.

The nature of work has changed in Western Massachusetts in the last 100 years, and it appears there is another change playing itself out places like New York City and Atlanta. It seems that stacking large numbers of young graduates in a tall, vertical box — those glass boxes shaping the skyline of lower Manhattan and Boston — is under re-evaluation.

It is said that places like Nashville, Austin and Portland are booming as graduates decide they can do their work remotely — that they can do their thinking without riding a commuter train for an hour each morning.

I believe the exchange of ideas, and the refining of those ideas, is a collective, corporate experience that is essential in the American marketplace. I think collaboration is connected to productivity; that productivity is the not-so-secret sauce that powers our economy.

Collaboration took a big hit with the COVID Pandemic. The first line of defense was get their young graduates out of the building, off of the New Haven railroad and comfortably isolated on a beige, Ikea-bought couch. The next thing was to eliminate in-person meetings and in-person travel to those meetings. In my own profession, the law, trials (both jury and non-jury) were canceled; and motion hearings, depositions and mediations went to a remote place called Zoom.

No. I didn’t like those remotely-held motion hearings from the start.

I didn’t like them because there were usually technical problems where the sound or the video would suddenly fail. The judge, sometimes sitting at a kitchen table in his home, would stop the proceedings and try to patch-in the audio by way of a cellphone. These jury-rigged efforts sometime succeeded, but there was a kind of insecurity lingering throughout the hearing.

Depositions — sworn interviews with potential witnesses were also subject to electronic failure. These days you may have four different lawyers in four different cities across the country. The problem here is the fact that during a long deposition, one or more of these attorneys can shut off his video (presumably still listening to the proceedings) all the while doing something else.

Since the advent of cellphones doing something else during a deposition — texting another attorney about a different case — usually takes place regardless. In years gone by it was not uncommon to see every attorney around the table, excepting the attorney doing the interrogation, busily checking their e-mail or ordering espresso machines from Prime.

This sort of thing can also happen in mediations — mediations being the last attempt to settle a case before a trial is put on the trial docket. At a mediation all participants are expected to make a good faith attempt to find a number — a dollar figure — that will end the case.

In order for a mediation to succeed both the Plaintiff and the Defendant must feel vulnerable. They must believe a jury is unpredictable and can bring back a verdict that is unacceptably high, or no money at all. Unpredictability and the continuation of trial-day, confrontational angst are the Mother’s Milk of mediation.

If the mediation is remote, the various lawyers (and their clients) remain secure in their tastefully-decorated offices, surrounded by their children’s art, distanced from the ring where uncertainty is made manifest. Although it’s hard to go “dark” during a mediation, the mediator’s compelling, lets-make-a-deal-and-go-home argument is diluted. Dulled. Easy to ignore.

Yes, I understand that the world is changing; and I’m a self-confessed Luddite, completely adrift and unhappy in this strange, now remote world.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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