Legal Innovation Now: Tech Competence a Must

Topics: Canada, Law Firms, Law Schools, Legal Education, Legal Innovation, Small Law Firms Blog Posts, Thomson Reuters

Law schools and regulators are beginning to accept that lawyers need much better training and knowledge in how to use technology.

As technology is increasingly used within law practices to streamline legal processes and more efficiently deliver services to clients, two important questions have come up for lawyers and law schools. Do lawyers and law students have the technical skills to meet the business needs for the current legal market? And with technology now highly integrated into the practice, is there then an ethical imperative for lawyers to be technically competent?

Technical skills

New and emerging technological developments and tools, combined with pressures to decrease legal costs, mean many law firms are trying to understand how to best introduce and integrate new technologies into their practices. However, it may surprise many to hear that most lawyers and law students lack the technical skills to meet the business needs of the current legal market. There are two reasons for this.

First, despite the pressures faced by firms to embrace these advancements, there are still those comfortable using existing — and increasingly outmoded — methods and processes.
Even within firms that are willing to introduce new technologies, convincing lawyers to use them has proved challenging. This resistance is known as the problem of adoption.

For many lawyers, the problem of adoption stems from a culture that nurtures the image of the “ingenious lawyer who triumphs by intellect rather than by procedural discipline.” To overcome this image, lawyers need to understand that there is still room for unique judgment, analysis and creativity when using technological systems. In fact, using technology for many of the more rote aspects of a file can free lawyers up to apply these higher-level skills to any issue. The other obstacle to technology adoption is the misconception that young, new lawyers are familiar with and proficient in the use of the latest technologies. These “digital natives,” tethered to their smartphones and using apps such as Uber for ordering a ride, Tinder for dating or Snapchat for social media engagement, are seen as easily able to understand and engage with legal technology.

[Students] understanding and use of these technologies is often simplistic and fails to leverage tools and functionality for real-time savings as part of their legal practice.

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 Excel. And while mobile apps such as Uber, Tinder and Snapchat have simple interfaces and features designed to be intuitive, legal technology applications and productivity software have interactivity capabilities that are much greater and far more complicated. However, few students ever truly learn how to engage with the full functionality of these applications and software. Their understanding and use of these technologies is often simplistic and fails to leverage tools and functionality for real-time savings as part of their legal practice.

Second, even though almost all of the work lawyers perform today involves digital tools, few law schools (with the notable exceptions of Osgoode Hall Law School, the University of Calgary and Thomson Rivers University) offer any type of substantive training in the use of technologies. This may be due to a perception that the use of technology is exclusively part of STEM curriculum or a support function, as opposed to a core lawyering skill. As legal professionals, put aside such thinking and help expand the legal professions’ well-defined, yet passive body of knowledge. Additionally, academic faculty may lack an understanding of the more practical components and the changing landscape of legal practice. As a result, they may underestimate or dismiss the importance of such courses to inquiring students. In turn, law students may fail to demand the inclusion of substantive technological training as part of the curriculum, which may strengthen the confirmation bias within academia that favors maintaining the status quo. Consequently, law students may complete three years of law school and easily avoid having to take courses with any kind of training in the use of technology.

You can read the full article in the latest issue of Canadian Lawyer magazine.