Opinionista Victor Dlamini 26 November 2009

Who needs a big briefcase anyway?

Either lawyers and pilots are overcompensating for something, or they are way behind the digital curve.

In our digital age, with small all the rage when it comes to accessories, it’s fascinating to see that lawyers and pilots still insist on lugging around oversized bags. If its information that they are hauling along in these monsters, then they are surely the last holdouts against the global wave of miniarization and digitization that has seen ever more information compressed into ever smaller footprints. But the truth is probably more mundane: the mystique these large briefcases lend their owners.

There was a time when the size of an accessory alone told you its worth, and those with the cash used to show off by having the biggest toys. These days, very often, the smallest is the most powerful; if Schiller was still around he would be smiling to see his dictum (small is beautiful) finally come true. But as it always the case in our world, there is an exception to every rule, and it is obvious that lawyers and pilots do not want to downsize.

Recently I was at the High Court in Johannesburg and I was surprised to see just how big some of the bags are that the lawyers and advocates haul around with them. One advocate had two assistants, each pulling a trolley full of files. It made for quite the spectacle. There is no doubt that documents play a crucial role in the law, but it is high time that the law also went high tech and allowed digitized documents to be used so that the lawyer only need bring his laptop into the court room.

As for the airlines, you would think they’d want to lead by example, what with the whole carbon footprint thing and the cost of jet fuel. You’d also think they’d be a little sensitive towards the feelings of airline passengers who are charged punitive rates if their luggage is so much as a single centimeter over regulation size.

It seems most unlikely that there is any practical need for pilots and lawyers to carry these over-sized bags. It tells us a lot about the role of the right image within these two professions, the seemingly mandatory nature of the bulky bags. Just as the uniform amongst the pilots and the gown amongst the lawyers creates a certain professional image, it is possible that the oversized bag completes the image. The law is an ancient profession, and aviation a relatively youthful one, but both require trust from their customers.

Given that todays jets are largely automated and computerized behemoths, and most functions happen at the touch of a button, what manner of arcane information do pilots pack into these bags? I dont think any of us would want our pilot ploughing through wads of paper to find out how to bring the plane under control in case of an emergency. Practicing the law may not have the same urgency, but surely there is an upper limit to the amount of reading a lawyer can do during a trial.

Me, I’d feel better about it if the captain of my plane waltzed past with a slim plastic folder containing a single page of emergency procedures, and the rest entrusted to his memory and reflexes. Similarly, the lawyer who can recall precedents from memory (or rapidly find them on a small electronic device) will gain my trust faster than the one who has to shuffle through a mountain a paper.



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