Law Life: Technological strategies for the future

By Paul Fletcher

The Daily Record Newswire

Bill Gates once famously said, "We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10."

Lawyers may be good at trial strategy or putting together ways to help their clients.

But they aren't especially good about handling technological changes or putting together technological strategies to help themselves or their firms.

Most lawyers have a "herd" mentality about technology, according to the New York State Bar Association Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession. They don't want to lead, but they don't want to be left behind, either.

Attorneys can easily be blinded by gee-whiz new gizmos, too, ones that might improve one portion of an office system while actually slowing down others.

The task force counseled a more deliberate, more global view of how technology functions within an office, recommending that firms use a "systems-based approach." This approach starts with an assessment of what functions the firm performs and how all the information it has works together.

The group's report uses new client intake as an example. While there is excitement and enthusiasm about a new client, after the conflict check and setting up a client file, no one likely sits down to write what work will be performed for this client or who will be doing it. If the client's needs change, that won't be recorded either. So by the time the work is completed there will have been a significant missed opportunity to record important information relating to the firm's experience with that client.

Under a systems-based approach, the lawyer opening the file would describe the matter and return periodically to update it. There would be cross-referencing to a number of the firm's databases - time and billing software, conflicts, personnel, document management and marketing, among others, according to the report.

Law firms waste a lot of money on technology. There is an important threshold inquiry that often gets missed: What does the firm want to accomplish with technology?

Generally, when firms meet and start to write down actual goals, some of the most prominent concerns include:

* Improving work product quality while reducing costs

* Increasing the satisfaction level of both clients and the firm's lawyers

* Improving efficiency

* Minimizing risk exposure

* Supporting mobile and flexible work arrangements

Echoing Hillary Rodham Clinton's thought that "it takes a village to teach a child," the report said that "the legal profession shares the burden of finding a way to help lawyers understand and use technology more effectively."

The task force urges law schools to incorporate practical instruction in the devices and systems that enhance law practice, including e-discovery, document management technology, advanced online legal research, courtroom technology and project management.

Law schools often provide electives covering these topics, the task force noted. But the report concluded that law schools "can better serve their students and the profession" by making such instruction mandatory.

On a similar note, Luddites should get with the program. Senior, established lawyers within law firms need to lead by example.

"If senior attorneys do not take a lead role in implementing a firm's strategic investments in technology, the firm is unlikely to develop a culture that will allow technological innovation to succeed," said the task force.

Published: Thu, May 26, 2011