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What Technical Skills Should We All Really Be Learning?

A great deal has been written about what technical competencies the legal community should learn in order to move forward professionally. It seems that much of this, while well meaning, overstates the level of knowledge needed to excel in legal practice and other jobs in the legal industry both in the present and the future. I am not trying to imply that there isn’t opportunity for those who would like to explore the technical side of the legal industry, but that doesn’t mean there is room for the advancement of all individuals in this area or that all careers will be improved (subjectively or objectively) by the acquisition of advanced technical skills.

Perhaps a better approach is to think about information technology skills as analogous to legal skills for those not in the legal industry: it is difficult to run a large company being completely unaware of the legal environment, but every CEO or senior administrator doesn’t need to have the full skill set of a lawyer to run a company well. Once a company reaches a certain level of complexity, it will likely need to have regular counsel, which may be internal, external, or a combination of internal and external to the company. While management at a company doesn’t need to be entirely comprised of lawyers, more knowledgeable clients get better service and outcomes through more sophisticated interactions with legal counsel. Finally, not paying attention to legal matters until something goes wrong exposes a company to more risk than regular monitoring and is often more expensive in the long run. All these things are also true of IT.

There are several categories of IT skills that are often discussed in similar terms, but they are actually separate activities, require different areas of expertise, and are of use to different groups of people. Many commentators pick the area they are good at and find useful personally and try to encourage others to use them too. This is likely generally well meant, but the return on investment isn’t going to be the same for everyone, and there isn’t room for everyone to be equally successful in each of them. The first category of expertise is a good working familiarity with standard office applications. A lack of these skills is, and appears like it will continue to be, a professional liability. These seem to be necessary for almost everyone who would like to continue working into the future.

The next category of skills is those relating to social media. I recently spoke with a software engineer who sheepishly said he didn’t use social media. He felt that he should because it is “tech,” but social media is a different activity from developing applications: social media is a communication, not a technical, medium. To learn how to use these sites on a technical level is simple, to learn how to use them to convey a message effectively given their constraints, build reputation and maintain relationships, convert the reputation built in those media into professional capital, and maintain the levels of content creation required to be effective over an extended period of time requires skill and commitment. Not everyone is going to find the effort required to accomplish these things worth the effort, especially as only a small portion of participants in social media will get significant reward.

Given the realities of the time requirements to maintain a successful legal practice, it is not realistic for every lawyer to maintain an active social media presence. If you don’t find it appealing, it may not be worth the investment. This article from Above the Law discusses the relative benefits of writing newsletters and blogging. Writing more substantial pieces less often may be a more satisfying and influential way to share expertise than a Twitter feed. These preferences are like those for other media: to some degree they come down to personal choice like getting news from the internet, a newspaper, the radio, or television. Reading a newspaper is not necessarily predicated on not knowing how to find content online.

Another skill that is getting attention is coding. Computer code is the languages (there are several) required to tell computers what to do, and it is what underpins activities like web development and software creation. There is a great deal of hype around learning to code, and the modest amount of coding I have learned has been tremendously useful to me personally, but I believe that mirroring my career is not the ambition of most people in the legal industry. Most lawyers will continue to hire others to do this work, as it is not worth their time to learn to do it poorly and take time away from something they are paid to do well. If you think you would like to learn to code there is no reason not to try it: understanding a little code can help a person understand what is required to accomplish certain tasks using a computer, and there seem to be interesting opportunities for lawyers with technical skills, but it is simply not worth every lawyer’s time to learn to code.

Aristotle believed that the highest form of knowledge is politics: the ability to understand people’s motivations and how to influence their actions is more complex than the understanding of physics, and it has been my observation that lawyers generally have the skill of politics and ability to navigate the complexities of societies’ rules. Those skills will continue to be necessary and valuable in the future. The problem is when the tools used to accomplish this core work are not used and maintained in the way they should be, wasting time and money to no good end. I think everyone in the legal industry understands the ways someone can be at a disadvantage when faced with a situation where another party has significantly more knowledge. In order to maintain a successful practice it has become necessary to understand IT to a certain degree, but some technical skills are not worth everyone’s time to learn.

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