By Jim Calloway
Dolan Media Newswires
Lawyers tend to have a love/hate relationship with technology. Of course, that’s often true for any of us who use today’s technology for our work. But for many lawyers, those feelings are quite pronounced and, without offering any amateur psychological diagnosis, I feel many members of the legal profession evidence a split personality when using technology.
The early years
On the one hand, law firms were early adapters of many types of technology. Fax machines made their way quickly into the law because lawyers needed to deliver documents quickly and were incurring significant expenses for couriers and overnight delivery services. Memory typewriters and early word processors were also embraced by law firms to avoid needless retyping.
But, as anyone who does technology consulting for law firms will tell you, internal resistance to many aspects of technology implementation within firms is often significant. It extends to purchasing new technology, training staff on technology, training lawyers on technology and adopting new technological tools.
That’s somewhat ironic when you consider that almost all parts of legal services delivery are information-based. Lawyers research online databases. They write. They prepare outlines and deposition summaries. They file pleadings with courts (increasingly by e-filing) that are prepared by word processing tools.
Arguments for and against technology
Many businesses now exist that could not have existed without the Internet or computers. Other businesses have been eliminated by changes in information technology and consumer expectations.
When computers were introduced into law offices, they were seen as a tool for secretaries to use — but certainly not for lawyers. A remembrance of the late Browning Marean, an expert in electronic data discovery and an active and beloved member of the ABA Law Practice Division who passed away last summer, included the fact he found himself “fending off complaints from his fellow partners that he had been seen by associates typing on his personal computer.”
But now the lawyer who does not have a computer on his or her desk is a rare individual indeed. The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct were amended in 2012 to provide in Comment 8 to Rule 1.1 that knowledge of “the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology” is a part of lawyer competency.
In August 2014, the Legal Tech Audit (legaltechaudit.com) was released by Kia America’s in-house counsel, Casey Flaherty, and professor Andrew Perlman of Suffolk University Law School’s Institute on Law Practice Technology Information and Innovation.
The story behind the audit has been well told by now. Flaherty thought the outside counsel that Kia retained were quite good with substantive legal work but their efficiency in workflow processes left much to be desired. Examples of poor uses of technology that cost the client money included printing documents to paper and scanning them to create a PDF file rather than creating the PDF directly on the computer, and an associate billing for hours to manually make mathematical calculations that could be done with a spreadsheet. Now that the audit exercises have been released with affordable fees and the ability for clients to request their lawyer’s scores, no doubt by the time you have read this column, scoring well on the audit will have become a rite of passage for many associates at large firms.
Those developments, combined with ever-increasing dependency of law firms on technology tools, have generated concerns for many so-called low-tech lawyers. They argue that they cannot learn everything there is to know about technology and still have the time to earn a living and remain competent in the substantive law of their practices. Of course, if pressed, they would have to admit that they do not know “everything” about the law either. The lawyer whose practice is limited to securities or real estate transactions does not need to know adoption law or how to handle a DUI case.
But a lawyer does need to have a basic understanding of the technology tools he or she uses frequently. If you are billing a client for four hours to do something that could be done in 20 minutes, you are not doing right by your law practice or your client.
We would all judge harshly carpenters or mechanics who are not familiar with the necessary tools of their trades. Technology tools are the lawyers’ tools of their trade. This is true now and will be increasingly true in the future. Whether the lawyer is truly technophobic or just thinks he or she is too busy to learn new skills does not really matter. The skills for a successful legal career increasingly include the effective use of technology tools.
Some years ago, a lawyer told me that he just “could not” learn technology and it all eluded him. I knew him well and responded that he was a medical malpractice defense counsel; he had learned the details of many surgical procedures and drug interactions. Did he really expect me to believe that he was incapable of learning technology tools that were in wide use in offices across the country by people without college degrees? Or did he just not want to? He shot me a grin in response.
There’s no turning back
It is far past time for any practicing lawyer to “want to” learn good technology skills. You need to embrace the technology tools that help you be more efficient in your law practice. Handwriting time entries on paper billing sheets for someone to interpret (or misinterpret) is not only inefficient but leaves the lawyer with a lot of billing proofreading. Enter your time into a billing system — or at least into a word processing document, if your firm is way behind the curve.
If you don’t know how to do a simple technology task, ask Google or another search engine; you will almost always receive links to Web pages with step-by-step instructions.
Train your staff and lawyers in small increments. Not only is a day-long technology training session stupefying, but that much material at one time is impossible to retain. Have short training sessions and send the attendees back to work to exercise their new skills.
Your technology skills represent your freedom and independence. Would a litigator really want to be unable to e-file a document without help (even though the best practice might be for staff to normally do the e-filing)? Should a lawyer’s work grind to a halt when flu season takes out several staff people at once?
Even power technology users have a love/hate relationship with their technology at times. But for most lawyers, a key to future success is learning to love the electronic advancement of their industry for the time that can be saved and the stress that can be averted through good personal technology.
Jim Calloway is the director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program. He publishes the weblog Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips.