Key IT skills for modern lawyers

There is often an assumption made that young lawyers (Millennials) entering the profession have the technology skills that my generation (Generation X) and the one that went before me (Baby Boomers) lack. A life brought up with a smartphone in hand equips them to tackle legal technology in a law office standing on their head. Or does it?

I had my own personal computers as a schoolboy in the early 1980s: a Dragon computer followed by a BBC Micro. I taught myself a bit of basic coding at the time.

The first law office I worked in during university holidays in the mid 1980s had no computers but electronic typewriters (with a limited memory) and a Telex machine. Carbon paper was used to produce your file copy letters/documents.

When I started my legal traineeship in the early 1990s computers were in use for Client Record Management (CRM), document production and cash room accounting functions. I introduced email to that firm and ensured they registered their domain name.

In 1999 I formed my own law firm, Inksters. At day one I purchased a sophisticated practice management system (more advanced than the one the firm I left had). It set me in good stead to build and grow Inksters.

That system has evolved and improved over the years. We moved it completely into the cloud in 2011.

Millennials have missed out on that evolution and may expect law firm technology to work like their smartphone does. They might be sorely disappointed.

Adapting to the individual firm

Legal technology will vary from law firm to law firm. There are a plethora of different practice management software solutions available and what appears to be an ever increasing array of document automation tools from new legal technology start-ups.

Some firms (more likely the larger ones) will have ‘Frankenstein’ systems. Where new bits of software have been added to old bits and possibly where amalgamations of different firms has resulted in them still operating systems brought over from the firm(s) that they amalgamated with as well as, and in addition to, whatever they had in operation pre amalgamation.

Many of these law firms will have invested heavily in non-cloud based technology and need to sweat their expensive IT investments before they can justify a move to the cloud or an investment in more up to date practice management systems.

However, those law firms are also more likely to be investing in Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems for e-discovery and contract review.

A lawyer joining such a firm will have to get used to all sorts of different types of legal technology; some maybe clunky and old fashioned, others modern and more sophisticated. They will never come equipped with the skills to use all of it. That will involve training whilst in the job.

An older lawyer (Generation X) joined my law firm. His first two days involved training on our IT systems. He left after those two days as he couldn’t cope with our technology. I think it was probably more a case of not coping with change from a law firm with very little emphasis on technology to one with such an emphasis.

You really just need very basic computer skills (which most lawyers young or old will have) and then training on how to use the systems in your particular law firm. You need an openness that you don’t know everything when it comes to legal technology and a willingness to learn.

Going retro

Millennial lawyers may also need to be prepared to see technology in use that they thought they might only ever see in a museum. The fax machine is still an integral part of many law firms, especially when it comes to conveyancing. This is because many of the banks/building societies will only issue loan instructions and redemption statements by fax and not email. Likewise some will only receive Certificates of Title and requests for loan funds by fax and not by email. This is slowly beginning to change with the use of online lender management portals. Also in Scotland fax is still often the preferred means of sending offers to purchase at a closing date as you get evidence of transmission that email doesn’t really provide.

Getting used to Microsoft Windows may also be a thing. Before joining a law firm, a Millennial may only ever really have known Android or iOS, especially through their smartphone usage.

Even email might be alien to a Millennial brought up on instant messaging via WhatsApp. They will have to get used to email being ubiquitous in law.

Digital dictation may be a new skill to learn but on the whole this now seems to be the preserve of the older lawyer. Younger more keyboard savvy solicitors are more likely to be happy tapping away than dictating. Also if they are in a law firm with a good case management set up they will find that much can be produced with ease without worrying about dictating.

Do lawyers need to learn to code?

This is a debate that rears its head from time to time on social media. I mentioned earlier that I taught myself some basic coding on a BBC Micro-computer way back in the early 1980s. My need/desire to code since has been non-existent.

My view is that if I need coding done I will hire in an expert to do it. I wouldn’t expect a lawyer to do it. Just like I wouldn’t expect a coder to represent me in a court of law.

Eddie Hartman of LegalZoom made this observation on Twitter: “‘Lawyers should learn to code’ is our century’s equivalent of ‘farmers should learn to build tractors.’ Simultaneously wrong-headed and underestimates how hard it is to build a good tractor.”

Jon Busby commented on LinkedIn: “I don’t see any mileage for the legal profession to generically learn to code. I wouldn’t take the time to go to law school if I wanted to know the legal implications of something. I’d go and ask (and pay) a lawyer to do that because that is what they do.

“My other add is, do they actually need to be tech savvy? Maybe they just use stuff because it is easy to use and don’t use stuff because it’s a bit shit.

“If that is pen and paper or a device so be it, what works for the individual user is key. I couldn’t live without post-it notes on my desk, (technically I could, it would be a bit sad if I couldn’t). Not exactly tech savvy. Or maybe they use stuff like an iPhone because the savvy bit has all been removed by good design.

“Most stuff usually fails because it is crap design and most crap design is made by people who think they have the solution, obsess about it but fail to understand the granularity (often hidden) of the problem. Time and time again I see vendors try to map the client onto their solution rather than the other way round.”

Unfortunately, lawyers will find some of that “crap design” in the legal technology within their law firms and that might, as Jon suggests, influence user take up. Sometimes the technology can be intuitive and need little training. Other times (and true of a lot of legal technology) training will be required. That training will vary from system to system.

Legal tech at law school?

It annoys me when I hear talk about needing to start the legal technology training at law school. What system are they going to be trained on and to do what? Given that law school is far removed from the workings of a law firm I find it difficult to imagine how any real meaningful legal technology training could be given at that stage.

In a typical day of a modern lawyer they will be using a practice management system to produce documents (invariably using Word) that will more likely than not be issued via email or perhaps shared via an online portal. The skills required to do this are not difficult and are easily learned.

What is also required is basic legal technology housekeeping skills. That is to make sure those documents and emails are properly filed and labelled within the case management system. Lawyers often fall down on such simple tasks.

Time recording will also be a pre-requisite in many law firms despite the never ending call to end the billable hour. Finding a system that will accurately capture that time without manual intervention is not easy. Again like the housekeeping I mentioned, it comes down to lawyers ensuring they actually do it, as the technology won’t necessarily do it for them.

That is the crux of the matter. The technology is only as good as the lawyer who is using it. And those lawyers need training (however tech savvy they may be) to use it properly and in particular to do the essential housekeeping that the IT can’t yet do for them.

Brian Inkster is the founder of Inksters Solicitors. He was winner of the Managing Partner/Team of the Year award at the Law Awards of Scotland 2014. He blogs on the Past, Present and Future Practice of Law at The Time Blawg. Email Twitter @BrianInkster.

Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash.