ABA TECHSHOW: Is It a Lawyer’s Duty to Be Technologically Competent?

Topics: Artificial Intelligence, Corporate Legal, Cybersecurity, Efficiency, Law Firms, Law Schools, Legal Education, Legal Innovation, Legal Technologists, Legaltech, Technology

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CHICAGO — For the past 30 years, the ABA TECHSHOW has been an opportunity for lawyers, legal professionals, and IT specialists to not only learn more about the latest legal innovations, but also to understand how technology is impacting the legal industry.

This year’s event held February 28 to March 2, had professionals pouring into Chicago to attend nearly 100 different hour-long sessions — covering subjects from cybersecurity and blockchain awareness to mastering Google AdWords. Among the options was an academic track, sponsored by Thomson Reuters, that provided a way to see technology through the law school lens and confront the everyday challenges of how to understand, use, and educate students about technology in the classroom.

A central theme discussed throughout the eight sessions in that track was the debate as to whether it’s a lawyer’s duty to be technologically competent. And if so, what should law schools be doing to prepare students for a new modern way of practice?

In the session “Tech Competencies: Past, Present, and Future,” industry experts Kenton Brice, Director of Technology Innovation at the University of Oklahoma’s College of Law; Daniel Linna, visiting professor of law at Northwestern University; and Natalie Runyon, Director and head of the Talent platform at Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute, each discussed the opportunities for teaching technology competencies in law school and the hurdles of keeping practitioners current.

“Law schools can teach you to think like a lawyer,” Brice explained. “Now, however, we should be teaching students to think like a lawyer with technology.” Brice also dived into the ethical obligation lawyers have to keep on top of new legal technology, as well as how the industry translates and adopts ABA Rule 1.1, which states that in order to be competent an attorney has “to maintain the requisite knowledge and skill… including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.”


“Law schools can teach you to think like a lawyer. Now, however, we should be teaching students to think like a lawyer with technology.”


Linna echoed the importance of modernizing the legal practice by educating attendees on the technology disciplines law schools should be implementing today to be recognized as a leader in the legal industry. Disciplines included teaching students about the business of law, such as the fundamental business and operational principles; other areas included process management, project management, data analytics, technology basics, and applied technology.

“If you don’t understand data, machine-learning and artificial intelligence, then you’re going to fall behind,” Linna said. “It’s becoming more in-demand by the client. In fact, practice is going to look different in 20 years, so we need to push beyond to prepare students for practice.”

Runyon agreed, backing the need for law school students to be technologically competent before entering law firms by presenting research gathered from a panel of legal educators, legal professionals, and thought leaders. She explained how the “Delta Model 2.0” of Lawyer Competence was developed, which took into consideration the shifts in client demand and the emphasis and growth of the business of law and legal operations within the profession. The Model focuses on three core competencies for the modern attorney: personal effectiveness, business and operations, and the law.

The information helped illustrate a key point made throughout the panel discussion: law school students need to understand how to use technology within the context of the law.

Betsey Frank, Director of staff development and technology training at Sidley Austin, agreed. During her presentation in a session called, “Can Technology Competency Help You Get a Job,” Frank explored the baseline skills law school students and new associates should be familiar with, including redaction, comparing documents, Excel sorting and filtering, and pivot tables. “If you understand the technology in which you work, it will help you excel at your job,” Frank said.

As each session progressed, it became clear that technology provides lawyers with an opportunity to increase efficiency; therefore, clients expect law firms and lawyers to have a baseline understanding of technology. In order to excel in the workforce, law school students should be prepared for technology advancements, so they can streamline their work and excel in their careers.

“I think technology is going to play an important part in my future,” said Matthew McLawhorn, 2L at Northern Illinois University’s College of Law. “I anticipate there is going to be a shift in the industry with how legal services are provided, and I want to make sure I’m on top of it.”