Technology for Lawyers: A competence requirement?

There has been a bit of publicity of late about the difficulties that some law firms are having in adapting to the continuing disruptive change that characterises the Digital Paradigm. The introduction and use of information technologies provides one example.

A lawyer’s stock in trade is not time, as has been suggested in the past. It is, in fact, information. The law office is an information hub with information flows coming in and out in the form of instructions, advice, the provision of information necessary to complete transactions, the preparation of materials to inform the Court of the nature of a dispute and the like. Information technologies must be a part of everyday legal practice. Technology enables law firms to do better in the provision of their services, and can assist in providing clients with cheaper, high-quality and nimble services.

Smaller law firms face a real challenge. There is not the division of labour in a smaller form, tuned to fulfilling client needs, to step back and take a deep perspective view of the future. Big law firms are able to attend to this aspect of practice management and often have internal teams working on little else. The smaller firms and the sole practitioners need to focus on things like websites, digital marketing, social media, e-discovery and cloud-based tools for practice and case management—hopefully giving them a competitive advantage in job market and spurring the use of new technology in every day legal practice. Cloud technology, for example, “is removing many obstacles by reducing hardware and in-house IT investments, quelling cybersecurity concerns, easing the complexity of scaling and updating software, and providing better overall access to general computing power. Additionally, as vendors continue to place more of a premium on providing online training modules for their products, the last great barrier to remain will simply be motivation” according to Mike Susong of Legaltech News.

At a recent forum titled “The Future of Legal Services in the United States: The ABA Issues a Clarion Call for Change” discussions centred on the problems citizens faced getting access to legal services. William Hubbard, immediate past-president of the American Bar Association suggested lawyers think more creatively about how they deliver legal services meaning that lawyers should “embrace technology and the benefits technology can bring to provide new avenues to provide legal services to those in need.”

There is a significant recognition, especially by the ABA, of the importance of technological knowledge and understanding as part of professional competence requirements. Four years ago, in 2012 the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct required, as part of the commentary to Rule 1.1, that lawyers have a duty to keep abreast of the benefits and risks associated with technology.

In September 2016 the Florida Supreme Court took the matter one step further, issuing an opinion adopting the Florida Bar Association’s proposal for mandatory technology Continuing Legal Education (CLE).

“In addition to adding the three-hour requirement, the court also amended a comment to its rule on lawyer competence to say that lawyers could retain non-lawyer advisers with “established technological competence in the relevant field.”

The court added that competent representation may also involve cybersecurity and safeguarding confidential information. “In order to maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should engage in continuing study and education, including an understanding of the risks and benefits associated with the use of technology,” the court held.”

It will be interesting to see if this move catches on. There can be no doubt that CLE programmes contain technology oriented modules, but the Florida move now makes it mandatory. This must be viewed as a necessary step as we move further and further into the Digital Paradigm and more and more aspects of technology permeate the legal landscape.

I have argued in the past that lawyers who argue technology related cases need to understand the technology and how it works. There is no point arguing a case about publication of material on social media without knowing how the platform operates, what its parameters and settings are, what the settings were at the relevant time and, importantly, how those settings can be located and examined. There is not really a “one size fits all” approach that can be adopted to social media and it would be unwise to make generalised assumptions about the qualities and operation of a platform.

There is little point in attending a case management conference about e-discovery unless the lawyers are aware of the various technologies that are available and, as importantly, how they work so that a reasonable and proportionate discovery proposal can be reached.

The nature of digital information, in and of itself, is paradigmatically different from that which is recorded on paper. Lawyers must understand this and recognise that although content is king most of the time, what lies beneath the content can be as informative, if not more so, than the content on the face of the document.

There are many more examples but the message is clear. Lawyers cannot be resistant to the Digital winds of change that are blowing. Bend, adapt, adopt must be the message for lawyers in the Digital Paradigm.

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