The practice of law has always been time sensitive. Lots of lawyers go to the office on Saturdays, ostensibly to open the mail. Fear of missing a deadline made opening the weekend mail an enduring tradition. An extra day or two is rarely worth the worry when it comes to getting the mail, but fears are not reasonable. I used to wait to go in to the office on Sundays, just to make sure the mail arrived before I did. Some cynics would say I go to the office on Sundays to avoid chores at home. By cynics, I of course mean my lovely wife.
Relatively speaking, mail has gotten slower over the years due to fax machines and email. I don’t miss the anxiety of making sure a brief got to the mailbox on time. That courts now receive documents electronically lets lawyers sleep much easier at night. However, settlement checks don’t fax well and mail delivery remains an important service to my law practice. With or without relativity, mail is moving slower than it used to.
Traditionally, the Post Office was mostly self-funded. Like most every entity in the time of COVID, funds are short and the United States’ Postal Service wants a stimulus check which it would gladly deliver to itself without a stamp. President Trump has had a bone to pick with the mail service for years and flexed his executive muscle recently. It is tough to discuss the USPS (or anything else in 2020) without mentioning politics. The post office’s current snail pace is purely political though, and President Trump didn’t start the mail service’s problems.
The Pony Express was a private entity that delivered mail for a couple years in the 1800s. Mail became a full-on government service in 1913, and the boost to our economy was almost immediate. As with many things, Congress became the enemy of progress. In 2006, Congress required the Post Office to fund its pensions in advance on a 50 year schedule, instead of allowing it to pay pensioners out of current revenue. The Post Office has been in default on those payments since 2012.
Private companies that pre-fund their pension obligations don’t often cover 100% of costs in advance. Whether the USPS should operate under this burden is debatable, as no other federal agency is similarly saddled. Speaking of saddles, even without a pension the Pony Express went bankrupt. Some say the Pony Express riders’ oath not to cuss or drink booze contributed to its downfall. More likely, wires were to blame for mail service woes back then as telegraphs foreshadowed email.
Package delivery has taken over post office resources and first class mail delivery is getting less attention. The mail service ended overtime pay and letter sorting for delivery occurs after packages get attention. Counter-intuitively, many mail sorting machines were decommissioned in the process. While no one is in a hurry to get their bills, creditors want to collect just the same.
One thing is clear- package delivery is profitable for the Post Office. Letters to law offices, not so much. My clients who are waiting on checks disagree.
Who has benefitted from the Post Office’s decline? Trees for one. Private delivery services like FedEx for another. Rural citizens have and will continue to suffer the most as private letter delivery services are not scrambling to carry rural letters. Given the current kerfuffle over mail in voting, don’t look for this to get any better before November when elections are done.
Writing a letter used to be equal parts style and talent. Quills and wax seals gave way to ballpoint pens and typewriters. Even after wax seals became passé, there was some ceremony to writing the perfect letter, putting it into an envelope and dispatching it. The time it took to write a letter made us pay attention not only to what was said, but how we said it. Email killed that elegance but gave us piles of spam in return. Hardly a fair trade, to be sure.
Future generations will never know the joy of finding a trove of love letters between courting ancestors. The excitement of reading old emails from a “saved” folder pales in comparison to perfumed envelopes bound up by a ribbon. The fear that a misbegotten missive from the past will surface to haunt its sender has been replaced by a more immediate regret- the “reply all” button.
Rain, snow, sleet or hail may not be able to stop the mail, but politicians have shown that they can. My Excalibur modeled letter opener doesn’t get much use these days, but neither does the back brace our local letter carrier used to wear. Despite our reverence for precedent, lawyers adapt to the world around us. Like other changes in law practice, we will survive the demise of the post office should it come to that. For me, it really just means one less excuse to go to my office on Sunday. I mean, reason.
©2020 under analysis llc. under analysis is a nationally syndicated column. Spencer Farris is the founding partner of The S.E. Farris Law Firm in St Louis, Missouri. His scented emails are legendary. Comments or criticisms about this column may be sent directly to Under Analysis via email at email@example.com.