Technology and the 21st-Century Lawyer

As someone who still pays his bills with a chequebook and stamps, I’m a little reluctant to address the whole question of technology in the legal profession. But here we go anyway:

To get a sense of the degree to which the law is still a pen-and-paper profession, listen to the language that lawyers use. “Paper the other side,” articling students are told. “Note up the case. Write a memo to file. Docket your time.” In our mind’s eye, it seems, we’re working in the age of bound ledgers and three-ring-binder timesheets, and the phrases we use unconsciously reflect that. That’s going to be a problem for 21st-century lawyers, for whom trying to ignore technology will be like trying to politely overlook that tornado outside the window.

Someone once said that technology isn’t really user-friendly unless you can explain it in ten words or fewer – it’s so easy to understand that your grandmother gets it. E-mail is easy: “Type a letter, press a button, and you’ve mailed it.” RSS, so far, isn’t: “First you set up an account with a news aggregator, and then you subscribe to a blog feed by finding the little orange XML icon on a web page and…” and Grandma ain’t gonna use it. When RSS becomes virtually automatic and invisible, sometime down the road, then people will use and love it, because it’s a great technology. But not until then.

In fact, here’s a handy rule of thumb I use when considering whether a particular technology is truly catching on: if it’s not being used as a verb, it’s not there yet.

“Xerox this document.”
“Redline my draft.”
“E-mail her the file.”
“Google the reference.”
“IM me.” (That one’s for all the kids out there.)

Any others? I once heard someone try to use “Blackberry” as a verb, but it’s too cumbersome (it’s a measure of the Blackberry’s value that it became so popular with such a lousy name). But that’s about it. Litigators don’t say, “Summation the file” or “Quicklaw the case.”

I think lawyers are just like most people when it comes to technology, except we like it even less. Apart from a few innovative souls, lawyers seem to break down into two groups: those for whom tech is a necessary evil, and those for whom it’s an unnecessary evil.

Part of the reason lawyers don’t really like cool new technology might be that we usually end up using it in ways that reinforce bad old habits. There are loads of time and billing programs on the market that will allow you to record the tiniest fraction of an hour spent on a file – which is a little like giving your stalker a detailed itinerary of how you plan to spend your day. The same software will also track every single disbursement on a file, and won’t the client be delighted that you were able to bill her for that extra photocopy? Blackberrys, cellphones and remote access software ensure that your employer can reach you anywhere, anytime, so forget about finding any peace of mind at the cottage.

But I think the main reason lawyers haven’t thrown a welcome party for technology is that we think all it’s really done is make things faster, more stressful, and not much more profitable. Fair enough: sometimes, it seems the only thing e-mail has brought lawyers, besides spam, is clients who send you a question at 10:00 and then phone at 10:05 wondering why you haven’t responded yet. Speed is up, and expected response time is way down.

Jim Calloway touched on this in a great article, “Technology, Stress and the Lawyer’s Quality of Life,” at the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance Program site last year. “The role of technology is to do it faster,” he said. “If you let technology set your pace, it will be faster and faster. To survive in a law practice for a career, you have to learn how to set your own pace.”

That wouldn’t be as much of a problem if lawyers were actually in charge of their own professional schedules. But as I suggested in an editorial for National last year, we’re not – the clock is.

“Thanks to the billable hour, speed has become a matter not only of pace for lawyers, but also of volume. It’s not just the hour you spend at the office — it’s how much billable activity you can cram feverishly into that hour. Lawyers fear wasting a single drop of time; it’s the fuel that powers their revenue. The faster they work, the more ‘efficient’ the fuel becomes — and never mind the damage to the ‘vehicle.’

Ideally, the speed-related demands that technology has enabled would motivate the legal profession to seriously reconsider some of its ways of doing things. It’s difficult to keep selling your services on the basis of “time spent” when the speed of technology has made time less relevant to much of the work that we do. But as I said on Monday, lawyers have always been late adopters of new methods and technologies, and we haven’t yet figured out to how to recalculate our value proposition for the Internet age. Meanwhile, the waters keep rising.

“You need to adopt a triage approach to the flood of information that you receive every day,” said Jim Calloway. “You cannot handle it all. You must practice prioritization, which may be the most important job and life skill of the 21st century.” I think that’s exactly right. How about you?


  1. RSS: “open your reader, read your websites & blogs there, stop surfing to each individually & wasting time”

    Email: “Click on properties, select server tab, enter your SMTP server for outgoing mail, and your POP3 server for incoming mail, enter you account name and your email password (this is the same as you ISP account password)…. yada yada yada…”

    MANY technologies need intermediaries. If you can set up Grandma’s email, you can give her a bloglines account and subscribe to a few feeds for her.

    On to Lawyers! … How many lawyers can use that giant photocopier in the mailroom? fax machine? Vacuum cleaner at home? (joke… I’m married to one, and yes, I will get slugged later)

    I’m guessing that most Lawyers have help with most technologies, and learn to use those that are central to practice: word processing, time tracking, research tools, the phone system, email, web, etc.

    I do like your comment on email. One of the best reasons I was ever given (in the ’90s) on why Lawyers shouldn’t use email was this: “Clients pay for a considered opinion, and even if a Lawyer knows the answer off the top of his head, responding 30 seconds later isn’t an ethical way of delivering a legal opinion.” Unfortunately, looking back, I think the lawyer who said this was partially right. Also unfortunately, I think in a number of areas of law, clients now expect it. At least for me, I like when a doctor does a few extra tests, and if I was hiring a lawyer, giving my issue some extra consideration (maybe a day or 2), wouldn’t be a bad thing either.

  2. I sometimes fear — well, more than sometimes — that my interest in technology is truly aberrational. And I just as frequently suspect that we are constantly driven by mechanisms in search of a purpose or an ability in quest of a need. But ’twas ever thus in the capitalist system. Who could have predicted I’d need: a new car every few years, HDTV, organic carrots, bottled water, yoga etc. etc.

    So… no points for resisting unless you fight the whole shebang. At least, not in my game.

    And at the end of the day I suppose whether lawyers learn to fiddle with the front end of things doesn’t matter much, because they — like M. Jourdain (!) — will be speaking prose without knowing it because of the computer’s and the internet’s ubiquity. It’s a done deal. And the issue as always is can they get enough income to pay someone to do whatever it is that involves manual labour, whether pushing or clicking or tapping etc.

    The keen thing will be if people like Rob Hyndman, who works wherever he wants with his laptop, or if people in far flung places who are able to push solutions up the “pipe” for less, are able to take a bit of the market because of their tech savoir faire.

  3. “Any others?”
    – Blog this
    – Digg it
    – Webify

    Regarding “Blackberrying”, I agree that using “Blackberry” as a verb is too cumbersome. In fact, I, and many other “kids out there”, use BB to refer to THE lawyer tool. It then becomes easy to BB anything you want to anyone, unless you prefer to SMS or PIN it ;-) The only problem (or is it?) is the multiple facets BBing implies: are you referring to the phone, e-mail, web browser or BrickBreaker ;-?

    In fact, being in Madrid this week, I have to BB my posts to my blawg for publication.

    Oh! Almost forgot the most important addition to your list:
    Slaw your ideas!

  4. Speaking about aberrational interests, I am almost fanatical about technology and how it can help the lawyer better practice law – at their own pace. And even more aberrational, I live and work in a developing nation!

    I enjoyed reading this article, gave me a lot to think about.