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Do Lawyers and Law Students Have the Technical Skills to Meet the Needs of Future Legal Jobs?

As technology is increasingly used within law practices to streamline legal processes and more efficiently deliver services to clients, an important question has arisen within legal professional and academic circles: Do lawyers and law students have the technical skills to meet the needs of future legal jobs?

If you have ever tried to innovate or introduce technologies to a law firm or to lawyers, then you know how challenging it can be to convince lawyers to use new technologies. Harder still is convincing them not revert to the old and outmoded way of doing things, but to persist in the face of what may be an initially steep learning curve: the problem of adoption

In the discussion surrounding the problem of adoption, one misconception stands out: that the problem of adoption is a factor of age within the profession. Senior industry professionals invariably believe that young new law school graduates are technologically proficient. These “digital natives”, as they have been termed, are tethered to their smart phones and easily and adeptly use apps such as Uber for ordering a ride, Tinder for dating, or SnapChat for social media engagement. It is, thus, not unreasonable that this new generation of law school students and lawyers are held out as bastions of hope for a new age of legal technology.

While not unreasonable, this assumption holds little truth; age does not appear to be a strong factor contributing to the problem of adoption. Young lawyers are not always open or motivated to train themselves on the use of legal technology applications or even basic applications such as MS Word or MS Excel. While mobile apps, such as those mentioned above, have simple interfaces and features designed to be intuitive, legal technology applications and productivity software does not. Further they usually have greater capabilities than those of the mobile apps mentioned above. However, few students ever have the opportunity or feel the need to engage with the full functionality of business applications, thus, never truly learn how to use them. Consequently, their understanding and use of technologies is often simplistic and fails to leverage tools and functionality for real-time savings as part of their legal practice.

This technological skills gap cannot be attributed to students alone. Even though almost all of the work lawyers perform today is done using digital tools, few law schools offer any type of substantive training in the use of technologies or advise law students on its benefits.

What is more, the technology skills gap is not unique to the profession of law. According to economist James Bessen’s article “Employers Aren’t Just Whining – the “Skills Gap” Is Real” in the Harvard Business Review, employers report difficulty filling jobs due to workers lack of skills “to deal with new technologies.” According to the Manpower Group 2014 survey, “35% of 38,000 employers reported difficulty filling jobs due to lack of available talent; in the U.S., 39% of employers did.” In 2016, this number increased globally to 40%. This shortage of skills includes, but is not limited to, those surrounding the use and application of technology. And while literature on the skills gap differentiates between hard skills and applied skills, as Bessen notes, the skills in the shortest supply all appear to be “related to new technology, in particular, to information technologies.” This provides current law school students and recent graduates an opportunity to which few are yet attuned. As Bessen argues, “[a]lthough it is difficult for workers and employers to develop these new skills, this difficulty creates opportunity. Those workers who acquire the latest skills earn good pay; those employers who hire the right workers and train them well can realize the competitive advantages that come with new technologies.”

Increasingly, large law firms are recognizing the need to look to technology to provide missed opportunities for efficiency and to provide a competitive edge. Sensing a shift in the attitude of larger firms, increasing interest in automation, knowledge engineering and artificial intelligent technologies, some have proclaimed the end of days for lawyers. While it is too soon to tell if technology will replace lawyers entirely, and my thought it won’t, it is certainly true that the traditional legal practice is evolving whether practitioners are keen or not. Therefore, it is essential that law school students embrace technology and problem solving tools early, and to advocate for technology courses and the incorporation of applied technology skills into existing course curriculum.

The introduction of courses offering training in the use of technologies in law schools comes at a propitious time. The Federation of Law Societies of Canada has proposed amending the Model Rules of Professional Conduct – the enforceable rules of conduct that set out the baseline standards of professionalism to which lawyers in Canada are to adhere – to include technical competency as a component of the definition of “competency”. If adopted by the Law Society of Upper Canada, or other provinces in Canada, lawyers will have to adapt to meet the changes to the practice of law being brought about by technology. In Ontario, a change to the Model Rules would likely lead to a similar change to the Rules of Professional Conduct, creating a duty for lawyers to be technically competent. Such a technical competency component has already been added to the American Bar Association model rules. Since then, 28 states have adopted the same into their Rules of Professional Conduct. If and when this change to professional competency does occur, the first step for lawyers will be to understand what it means to be technically competent and this may lead us to address this skills gap in the profession.

Comments

  1. Lawyers’ skills from “dedicated word-processors” to BYOD. In 1980, I bought and put a desktop computer on the desk of each of my legal research lawyers at LAO LAW, (a large centralized legal research unit at Legal Aid Ontario for lawyers in private practice willing to service legal aid cases). But my staff said that they would not use those “machines” because that involved typing, and typing was clerical, and, they didn’t go through law school to be treated like secretaries. I had learned to type in high school (secondary school, grades 10 and 11; in 1955-56) as the only boy in classes of 30 students, taught to type on purely mechanical typewriters. Because correcting a typing mistake was very time-consuming, the teaching strategy emphasized accuracy as much as speed. Thereafter, I didn’t need clerical support to produce clean, typed copy. And so to reduce my labour costs, I wanted each of my researchers to type (“keyboard”). But in 1980, lawyers hand-wrote or dictated their drafts. So, a lawyer without a secretary was a dysfunctional lawyer.
    I had bought “dedicated word processors,” so-named and considered to be unique devices because they dedicated all of their software to the one function of word-processing. Therefore they provided the best word-processing. Desktop computers still reflected why they are called “computers,” i.e., because their intended market was that of the engineering, and other mathematically-based professions from which they originated. About that time, I read a Time magazine article that said that it had not yet been clearly decided who would win the market, the traditional desktop computer or the dedicated word-processor. That article now seems like a penetrating view into the obvious, given how much of the population’s work and careers are based upon the use of words rather than mathematics.
    Shortly after that first staff up-rising had been suppressed by issuing manuals for learning how to type at great speed, they expressed concern that those “machines” allegedly emitted dangerous radiation. Therefore I bought fine-meshed wire screens that fit nicely into the casing that housed each computer’s screen. So they went back to work, albeit apprehensively so. I didn’t believe that such radiation existed, but arguing the point was not the least expensive way to get them back to work.
    By its ninth year of development (1988), LAO LAW was producing legal opinions for lawyers in private practice at the rate of 5,000 per year—because those lawyers could make more money using LAO LAW instead of billing Legal Aid for their own legal research hours. During those years we went from sharing texts by exchanging 8-inch square “floppy disks,” to being among the very first Toronto law offices having centralized digital storage. And, I no longer hired anyone unless they knew how to keyboard (“type”). Now, a necessary additional qualification would be, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device, to facilitate mobility and continuous access to the database, and to one’s “cloud” storage).
    Because most of the evidence used in legal proceedings now comes from complex electronic systems and devices, specialized legal research units like LAO LAW will be necessary for all lawyers. See the sections describing LAO LAW in this article: “Access to Justice—Unaffordable Legal Services’ Concepts and Solutions” (pdf), at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2811627

  2. Ken – Thank you for your comment. Looking back on things, it seems funny, I am sure at the time it was frustrating. The nature of the arguments may change depending on the technology, be it desktop computers, or the cloud, but essentially it all boils down to resisting adoption even after so many years.

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