Law Office Computing
Beware the Coming of the Millennium Bug
I am sure you have read or heard about the Millennium bug in the press and other media. The Millennium bug is a product of the shortcuts that computer programmers have used over the last 40 years when they developed the billions of lines of computer code that runs the massive mainframe computers upon which corporate America depends. You know the shortcut I am talking about because you have used it yourself for many years. When you or I write a check, or a computer programmer writes a piece of code that involves a date, we typically express the date in a series of two-digit numbers. Days and months can be expressed accurately with two digits but years cannot. Thus the common shortcut of using the last two digits of the year and assuming that the reader, or the machine, would understand that the first two digits were "19" became ubiquitous. In less than two years, however, the shortcut "00" will be used most commonly to refer to the year 2000. Unfortunately, computers being stupid machines, will be unable to understand that "00" does not refer to 1900 and they will assume the "19" prefix. We will all age 100 years overnight.
The first time I heard about the Millennium bug I was inclined to dismiss it. While I knew the bug was real, I couldn't believe that computer engineers would be unable to solve the problem. All it will take, I said to the first person who called me, is a little bit of perseverance and elbow grease. I was wrong--incredibly wrong.
IT managers at major corporations do not usually call me for advice! Indeed, it would be fair to say that I have never knowingly spoken with such a person. If I had I would have told them a couple of years ago that they needed to get their programmers hopping and put in place procedures that will result in the eradication of the Millennium bug from their old systems. I thought, a couple of years ago, that it was an obvious and do-able task.
But nobody called and nobody wrote. The IT managers of corporate America by and large went blithely on their way pushing the Millennium problem under the rug. What would have been a minor problem had it been attended to a few years ago is now the beginning of a true disaster. The failure to address the problem when it first became apparent several years ago is what we used to call in law school, "nonfeasance." The IT departments of corporate America are now in deep trouble and I have no doubt that the litigation that will mushroom around this problem will be absolutely stunning in its size and frequency. The damages in these lawsuits will stagger the imagination.
Who are these defendants-in-waiting? They are, my friends, your banks, your life insurance companies, your clients' suppliers and indeed perhaps your clients themselves. And, to borrow from Pogo, they may be us. On January 1, 2000 computer systems that write checks, manage personnel files and retirement benefits, manage hospitals and schools, or schedule your airline flights may fail to do their job and throw us into chaos. And, given the obviousness of the problem, the failure to address it in time to solve it reflects a corporate state of mind that would justify exemplary damages.
Corporate America has only recently decided that this problem is serious enough to require immediate action instead of extended discussion. One of the big problems is that the computer code language in common use 15 or 20 years ago is no longer common place. There are a discrete number of programmers who are able to handle this problem and they are already booked through January 1, 2000 and beyond. The painful reality is that there simply are not enough people around to solve the problem that presently exists. I have read estimates that the cost of fixing this problem, assuming that somebody has a solution, will be in the neighborhood of 200 billion dollars or more. But the cost of not fixing it will be social chaos and an incalculable level of economic damage to the worldwide economy.
One solution may be for individual companies to rebuild their computer infrastructure and adopt new core programs designed to overcome the bug. That is certainly possible and it may be the only way out of the mess. If so, the memory of the Oxford Health Plan's computer debacle must be haunting IT directors around the world. Maybe, on the other hand, some smart young person will find a way to solve the problem. If so, it is likely to be a "hair of the dog that bit you" kind of solution that some may not like very much and which in all events will cost big dollars.
The next 23 months are fraught with great danger. As this is written, ABC news reports that the millennium bug is expected to "wreak havoc on computer systems around the world on Jan. 1, 2000" causing the grounding of as much as half of all domestic airline flights. Congressional investigators and the Transportation Department have noted that the Federal Aviation Administration is substantially behind schedule in its efforts to correct the anticipated end-of-the-century glitches in its computer system and the FAA has conceded that they are correct. It may be by this late date that the only viable solution is the complete replacement of all air traffic control systems around the world. The cost of such replacement is astronomical but realistic alternatives may now not be possible. This is the stuff of serious litigation.
If you are running a fairly modern network in your law office and your information technology is based upon information stored on the hard drives of individual PCs, you probably do not have a problem. Most modern software has anticipated and solved the problem already. You can check your machine's software, however, by the use of some simple tools that can be found at a terrific site on the world wide web managed by one of the major consultant firms on the year 2000 problem. That web site can be found at http://www.rightime.com where you will be able to download Test2000.Exe which will determine if your machine is compliant. If your machine is truly year 2000 hardware compliant or can be made compliant you will be happy. But the bad news is even more important. If your machine cannot be made compliant you need to put in place a plan to replace it.
A lot of lawyers will make a lot of money on the coming crisis. Let them not do it with you or your clients!!! This is not "Chicken Little" falling sky alarmism--it is real and its implications are almost beyond comprehension. The time to act is NOW!!