Are your legal technology skills stuck in the Stone Age?

In August 2012 the American Bar Association House of Delegates approved several changes to the Model Ethics rules, including a modification to Comment 8 of the Competency Rule #1.1 (shown below bold face):

Rule 1.1 Competence

A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.

Maintaining Competence

[8]  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.

In my home state of New Jersey two years earlier, in January 2010, the New Jersey Supreme Court updated the rules for continuing legal education mandating that each of the 69,000 lawyers in the state, admitted to practice after 1960, must “complete 24 credit hours of continuing legal education every two years. Of those 24 credits, at least four must be in ethics and/or professionalism.”

Until this mandate by the NJ Supreme Court, the annual meetings of the New Jersey Bar Association and NJ Association for Justice (trial lawyers) were sparsely attended. Once the new CLE rules went into effect attendance tripled with lawyers taking 12 hours of CLE courses in 2 days. Clearly the mandatory CLE credit rule was motivation for the Garden State lawyers to stay current within their fields of practice.

However, competency in their “fields of practice” is a far cry from legal technology literacy. I speak from personal consulting experience where I have observed law firm partners recording appointments and check receipts on large paper ledger sheets, despite having up-to-date computer software on every computer in the office. When asked about this apparent technological disconnect, the response is always the same: “I don’t trust computers.”

The result is duplicated effort, as the office manager would then have to transcribe the partner’s notes into the relevant time and billing or practice management software the firm already owned. Similarly, I remain stunned at the number of younger lawyers who, to this day, hand-write their time entries on sheets of paper with rows and columns, which are then handed over to their secretary for entry into the firm’s billing system. Law firm productivity management would demand that these lawyers make their time entries directly into the firm’s billing system and leave their staff to perform more productive tasks. More than likely, the firm’s office manager/bookkeeper set the paper-entry procedure 25 years ago, so it was handed down to each succeeding generation of new associates.

Last year, during the George Zimmerman trial, an example of being technologically-challenged was displayed on the national stage when the prosecutor in the case demonstrated an almost zero understanding of how Twitter followers and Facebook friending works. The prosecutor’s attempt to connect a witness to a Zimmerman relative merely because the relative’s name appeared as a Twitter follower of the witness apparently fell flat. I’m certain that if the prosecutor had any children older than 10 years of age, they could have explained it to him in a way that even he could understand.

The risk today’s technologically-challenged lawyer faces is that a younger opponent in a case, who grew up with a laptop in junior high school and has an iPad on their desk today, will be able to mount a more vigorous case using their instinctual knowledge of legal-based software, social media and documents stored in the cloud. A loss due to such a lopsided match-up could quite easily devolve into a malpractice claim against the losing attorney for failing to meet the standards of competency set by the ABA for maintaining technical understanding.  It is simply in the economic interest of every lawyer to embrace the use of technology to run their law office business more efficiently and to use technology to practice law more efficiently.

To paraphrase the old GEICO ads: “Law practice today, aided by practice management, time and billing and document management software should be so easy, even a caveman could do it.”

Unfortunately, the very lawyers who most need to follow this advice probably do not read legal blogs like this one. Maybe their children and grandchildren could share it with them via email.

Steve Miller, JD  has provided law office productivity consulting services since 1998. He is certified in LexisNexis PCLaw®, LexisNexis Time Matters® and Amicus Attorney®.

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