21st-century legal technology

This article was first posted at Slaw on September 27th, 2006.

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 earlier post, 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?