There's no question that the infusion of technology into the practice of law has created new responsibilities for lawyers. Increasingly, lawyers are playing a larger role in law department operations. Their ability to follow procedures is a critical element in achieving the efficiencies that computers have made possible.
Looking beyond the glitz of new gadgets, there are solid reasons why lawyers should learn how to use a wide variety of high-tech tools. Lawyers who develop good computer skills can improve their productivity, contribute to the efficiency of law department operations, and prepare themselves for new developments that technology will bring to the legal profession.
In the future lawyers who fail to master basic technology skills will find their law degree isn't enough to get them hired. However, lawyers who know the basic office software programs and technology will improve how their law department operates.
The New Law Department
Of course, not every lawyer keeps up with the latest gadget or application. But technology has transformed the practice and business of law for almost everyone. Office software programs have matured into comprehensive systems that bring together all the information needed to run a legal department. Good office technology is now required for both practicing law in a competent manner and running a department efficiently.
Lawyers need to develop solid computer skills to keep up with routine procedures in most law departments, including:
"In the past lawyers could get away with not knowing much about office systems as long as they had sufficient support staff," said David Whelan, former director of the Legal Technology Resource Center of the American Bar Association (ABA). "But the emphasis on efficiency is changing the culture, and lawyers will be doing more things themselves."
It's not just seasoned lawyers who have to worry about keeping pace with technology. Law schools generally focus on training lawyers to use electronic resources for legal research, and many new lawyers enter the profession unschooled in some routine tasks.
"Many law students don't know anything beyond the basic functions of word processing even though they've been using it every day," said Whelan, noting that young lawyers face higher expectations of computer competency. "As a young lawyer, I wouldn't want to risk not having more advanced word processing and business software skills."
Most corporate lawyers can rely on information technology (IT) specialists to handle the technical issues involved with computers, but they still must take responsibility for their own computer skills.
Efficiency And Safety
"There are essential technical skills for lawyers," said James Calloway, director of the Management Assistant Program at the Oklahoma Bar Association and chairman for the 2005 ABA TECHSHOW . "It doesn't make sense to interrupt a secretary to enter something into the department's calendar when it's much more efficient to do it yourself."
According to Calloway, lawyers in small offices often know more about computers than their counterparts in large offices. They tend to be generalists who must perform more computer tasks themselves. Many keep abreast of the latest developments to maintain a competitive advantage. "Small offices can be more nimble in implementing new technology," said Calloway.
Protecting the office computer system from hackers and viruses has become a major concern for law departments. Large offices have IT specialists to manage firewalls and anti-virus software, where small offices usually have a designated technical expert. Nevertheless, lawyers need to know about office procedures for backing up files so that they won't lose files if a hacker or virus disables the office system.
Mastering E-mail Skills
The emergence of e-mail as a major method of correspondence has created a number of new responsibilities for lawyers. In addition to using e-mail as a valuable communication tool, lawyers must know how to properly file e-mail so it can be easily retrieved. It's no longer enough to print out e-mails, an antiquated approach if the office is maintaining digital files.
Lawyers should know how to use software associated with e-mail such as Adobe Acrobat , which is used to create Portable Data Format (PDF) documents usually attached to e-mails. Some lawyers know very little about the capabilities of this essential software program to protect and secure electronic documents.
Many e-mail attachments contain additional unseen information called metadata that can include earlier versions of the document and essential data about the client. While metadata is hidden from the average user, it can be recovered fairly easily. Even if the office has procedures in place for dealing with metadata, lawyers should know how to remove this potentially damaging information. Lawyers also must be aware of the potential dangers associated with e-mail and take the necessary steps to avoid a breach in confidentiality.
Some law departments use encryption programs to transmit highly confidential material by e-mail, because unencrypted e-mail and attachments can be viewed over the Internet. Lawyers should be familiar with office procedures for encryption and should probably know how to do it themselves if they send out encrypted e-mails every week.
Law departments also must deal with the constant barrage of unwanted e-mails known as "spam." Many companies have installed filters to screen unwanted e-mail, and lawyers should be familiar with how their office is handling this problem. They need to observe commonsense precautions to reduce the inconvenience of spam as well as the potential risk of viruses.
Adapting To Office Systems
Computer programs are capable of keeping track of the law department's calendar. A lawyer familiar with this software can quickly check to see if a conference room is available for a planned meeting and whether or not a colleague can attend. The lawyer who can't operate the program has to track down a legal secretary or legal assistant to perform this simple task.
Many law departments utilize case management software to organize case material and track the progress on a file. Lawyers can either help the system run smoothly by filing documents properly, or create problems by not following standard office procedures. Maintaining the integrity of well-organized files should be everyone's concern, not just a task for legal secretaries and/or legal assistants.
Some law departments are planning to eventually eliminate paper files altogether. With this system, all new documents are filed electronically, and existing documents are scanned into the computer system. Lawyers functioning in this office environment will not have a choice about learning how to use case management software.
Keeping Up With Litigation Support
Litigation is perhaps the leading area of technology innovation within the legal profession. Jurors have come to expect elaborate multimedia presentations, and litigators must master presentation tools that illustrate complex issues and aid in expert testimony.
Litigation support software can organize documents, databases and images, as well as manage information obtained through discovery. There are programs to map out strategy, assess strengths and weaknesses in a case, and prepare summaries. Many lawyers will find themselves at a disadvantage if they don't use litigation support software to prepare for trial.
Within this area, electronic discovery has increasingly become a hot topic. Litigators must be able to search for information stored on computers and other digital devices such as personal digital assistants (PDAs). Lawyers who know how to find metadata in e-mailed documents can gain a significant advantage. Even if lawyers don't conduct the actual work, they should know how and where to look.
According to Michael Arkfeld, a litigation attorney in Arizona and author of Electronic Discovery and Evidence and The Digital Practice of Law, about 30 percent of information needed in corporate litigation is only available in digital format, and litigants that can't produce that information for electronic discovery face stiff sanctions from the court.
Some federal courts now require all filings to be transmitted by e-mail, and lawyers need to familiarize themselves with e-filing methods and requirements.
Staying Ahead Of The Game
Many lawyers have increased their efficiency with PDA devices that provide easy access to all their contact and calendar information - some are even moving to a combination PDA and cell phone.
Additionally, lawyers can use their laptops to retrieve files when wireless computer access is available. However, wireless Internet access is not always secure, which creates a new range of security concerns. Lawyers who want to send confidential material in this manner need to know about protocols used to provide wireless encryption.
Technology continues to offer new opportunities to lawyers who keep up with new trends. A major development is the emergence of blawgs, the legal community's version of blogs. Blawgs are the online journals created with software that make it easy to post information on the Web, monitor important sources, and pass on information to colleagues.
The latest application may not be for everyone, but it's clear that there's a lot to be gained by keeping up with new developments in legal technology. Lawyers can try to get by with a bare minimum of technological knowledge, but those who learn how to use new technology tools can use their time better and have more marketable skills. Ultimately, lawyers who keep up with technology will always have an advantage in the job market.
Terrence T. Murphy (Terry) is Vice President of Kelly Law Registry, a business unit of Kelly Services, Inc., a global provider of staffing services, headquartered in Troy, Michigan. Recognized as one of the nation's premier legal placement firms, Kelly Law Registry specializes in the permanent and temporary placement of attorneys, paralegals and other legal professionals. Kelly Law Registry is managed and staffed by legal professionals who have broad experience in corporate and law firm environments. Visit www.kellylawregistry.com.