Don’t Be that Luddite Lawyer

OLD SCHOOLAccording to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the word Luddite describes “one of a group of early 19th century English workmen destroying laborsaving machinery as a protest [for fear of losing their jobs]; broadly: one who is opposed to especially techno­logical change.” Being an out of the closet technophile, I frequently en­counter self-described “luddite law­yers” who brag about their lack of technological prowess and that all they need to practice law is “their wits, a pen and a yellow legal pad.” When I hear such drivel, it brings to mind stories of 19th century doctors resisting hand washing protocols and basic operating room hygiene because they too were “old school.” Who wants to be a patient of a self-proclaimed luddite doctor? Like­wise, how can technological ignorance be an asset for a lawyer?

In the most recent changes to the ABA Model Rules of Professional conduct, lawyers are advised that to be professionally competent it is necessary to keep current on the benefits and risks associated with technology. This guidance is found Comment 8 to Model Rule 1.1, which addresses the duty to provide competent representation. Comment 8 states in pertinent part:

To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks asso­ciated with relevant technology, engage in continuing study and education and comply with all continuing legal education requirements to which the lawyer is subject.

Id. (emphasis added).

What constitutes relevant technology is undefined and will no doubt vary depending up the practice area. Clearly, if you intend to represent clients in any sizable civil, criminal, bankruptcy or domestic litigation matter, an understanding of basic e-discovery principles is required to be an effective advocate. On the other hand, a small trusts and estates practice may have a lower technology bar to cross.

Savvy clients are also demanding their lawyers be technologically competent. One widely reported example is Casey Flaherty, in-house counsel at Kia Motors. Flaherty has developed a basic technology audit he administers to lawyers doing Kia’s work at outside law firms. He indicates that as a whole, his outside lawyers do not perform well on the initial test. This suggests to him that the lawyers are not using readily available technology to work efficiently. The take away: lawyers who fail to become technologically proficient are unlikely to get future Kia work.

With competitors like Legal Zoom, document review software, and so­phisticated document assembly programs taking ever larger shares of the legal service pie, lawyers will need to use technology advances just to hold their ground against tech heavy competitors. True, technol­ogy has and will displace some lawyers. Historically, however, ad­vancements in technology have largely benefited the human condition and improved life. For example, in 1900, 50% of the US population lived on farms and were employed in farming or farming related work. Contrast that with today where less than 2% of the population lives on farms and less than 4% of the population is employed in farm re­lated work. If you were a farm worker in 1900 and knew so many farm jobs would be lost in the upcoming century, you might be very afraid for the ensuing generations– “what will they do for a living?” As it turned out, such fear of widespread unemployment would have been unwarranted. As technology disrupts and destroys old economic systems, it creates new ones from the rubble. The trick is to recognize and adapt to the new normal.

Like farming in the 1900s, it is obvious that technology and economic efficiency pressures are transforming the way we practice law. Many legal futurists predict that in the near future there will likely be far few­er lawyers, working more efficiently and at a lower cost. Arguably, this a good thing for society and the profession, if not for us as individual lawyers living through the change. There will be winners and losers in the legal industry– those that can adapt to technological advances and innovate will thrive. Those that cannot will find employ­ment in a lower tech service field.

The good news is things are changing so fast on the legal technol­ogy front everyone is learning. A former luddite can jump into the deep end of the technology pool and with just a little effort  (meaning an investment of quality time) can get up to swimming speed with the techies fairly quickly. So come on in, the water is fine. Start with re­ally learning the useful features of your current software systems. Chances are your practice uses the Microsoft Office suite of software. You would likely be amazed how much more you can do with Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Publisher, OneNote, Access, etc., than you do now. Move from there to really learn your practice management software. Look for areas of repetition that can be auto­mated. Look for interactive tutorials, CLEs, or even consider bringing in an outside consultant to teach a small group at your office. Hands on learning is most effective. Bottom line: Don’t be that luddite lawyer!

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