On the demise of checks and checking, and a “pleasantly remunerative” law practice

More than half of the branches of the largest banks in Sweden don’t keep cash and won’t take cash or checks anymore. Churches, charities, and even homeless street vendors prefer swipe cards or cell phone payments to cash. So do the major retailers worldwide. In Africa and India, most commercial payments move by cell phone. Cash and checks are too expensive, too risky, and too much trouble.

The point when cash and checks will be finished is in sight.

So this is a moment for MidLaw.

There was a time when MidLaw made a tidy practice in negotiable instruments law as an attorney and also as an expert witness. It was a nice practice – just narrow enough to require a quasi-specialist but nonetheless broad enough to keep a steady stream of legal questions and controversies coming in. And it entailed enough money both to keep rogues looking for new angles and also to justify paying lawyers to sort things out.

But the rogue community these days seems to be moving on to email, telephone scams, and the like. Those check scams that are left seem to focus on fake checks and counterfeits, and they just don’t seem to require lawyers so much anymore.

Well, the good old law of paper payments has a long and colorful history and MidLaw hates to see it go. It occupies not one, but two, articles (chapters) in the Uniform Commercial Code. There’s an extensive criminal law of worthless checks, forgeries, counterfeits, and kiting. Can a negotiable order to pay be written on the back of a cow? Can you serve as an intermediary to help the late royal family of Nigeria negotiate a certified instrument? (They said they were royal, anyway.) There’s a well-developed body of precedents about these things. In short — and I am serious: the law of negotiable instruments is a monumental and elegant achievement of Anglo-American jurisprudence.

But now as payments in cash and checks decline and fewer matters arise, MidLaw is mindful of the thoughts of that long-ago lawyer in Bartleby, the Scrivener, who had a practice as a Master in Chancery on Wall Street in the early 19thCentury. He said,

The good old office, now extinct in the State of New York, of a Master in Chancery, had been conferred upon me. It was not a very arduous office, but very pleasantly remunerative. I seldom lose my temper; much more seldom indulge in dangerous indignation at wrongs and outrages; but I must be permitted to be rash here and declare, that I consider the sudden and violent abrogation of the office of Master in Chancery, by the new Constitution, as a premature act inasmuch as I had counted upon a life-lease of the profits, whereas I only received those of a few short years.

Similarly, modern-day negotiable instruments lawyers can hardly indulge in indignation at the substitution of electronic payments for paper instruments, and they can hardly label it an outrage, but they might be excused a certain regret in noting the passing of this once pleasantly remunerative area of practice.

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