Do Lawyers and Law Students Have the Technical Skills to Meet the Needs of Future Legal Jobs?

Editor’s Note: Reposted from Slaw.ca with author’s permission.  This seemed like a timely item to repost to On Firmer Ground since legal tech is currently a hot topic.  The American Association of Law Libraries recently announced the formation of a Teaching Legal Technology Caucus.  See the March/April 2017 issue of AALL Spectrum for an article, “Teaching Legal Technology:  A Critical Conversation on Legal Technology Skills and Training,” touching on some of the same points that Monica discusses and proposing some next steps to address the issue.  Also, the upcoming PLLIP Summit will focus on the Nexus of Knowledge and Legal Technology, and will be “a thought-provoking look at the high rate of change in the legal tech environment.”

By Monica Goyal, a Toronto-based lawyer and a softwarenology entrepreneur who founded My Legal Briefcase, a legal software company.

As technology is increasingly used within law practices to streamline legal processes and more efficiently deliver services to clients, an important question has arisen within legal professional and academic circles: Do lawyers and law students have the technical skills to meet the needs of future legal jobs?

If you have ever tried to innovate or introduce technologies to a law firm or to lawyers, then you know how challenging it can be to convince lawyers to use new technologies. Harder still is convincing them not revert to the old and outmoded way of doing things, but to persist in the face of what may be an initially steep learning curve: the problem of adoption

In the discussion surrounding the problem of adoption, one misconception stands out: that the problem of adoption is a factor of age within the profession. Senior industry professionals invariably believe that young new law school graduates are technologically proficient. These “digital natives”, as they have been termed, are tethered to their smart phones and easily and adeptly use apps such as Uber for ordering a ride, Tinder for dating, or SnapChat for social media engagement. It is, thus, not unreasonable that this new generation of law school students and lawyers are held out as bastions of hope for a new age of legal technology. 

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 MS Excel. While mobile apps, such as those mentioned above, have simple interfaces and features designed to be intuitive, legal technology applications and productivity software does not. Further they usually have greater capabilities than those of the mobile apps mentioned above. However, few students ever have the opportunity or feel the need to engage with the full functionality of business applications, thus, never truly learn how to use them. Consequently, their understanding and use of technologies is often simplistic and fails to leverage tools and functionality for real-time savings as part of their legal practice.

This technological skills gap cannot be attributed to students alone. Even though almost all of the work lawyers perform today is done using digital tools, few law schools offer any type of substantive training in the use of technologies or advise law students on its benefits.

What is more, the technology skills gap is not unique to the profession of law. According to economist James Bessen’s article “Employers Aren’t Just Whining – the “Skills Gap” Is Real” in the Harvard Business Review, employers report difficulty filling jobs due to workers lack of skills “to deal with new technologies.” According to the Manpower Group 2014 survey, “35% of 38,000 employers reported difficulty filling jobs due to lack of available talent; in the U.S., 39% of employers did.” In 2016, this number increased globally to 40%. This shortage of skills includes, but is not limited to, those surrounding the use and application of technology. And while literature on the skills gap differentiates between hard skills and applied skills, as Bessen notes, the skills in the shortest supply all appear to be “related to new technology, in particular, to information technologies.” This provides current law school students and recent graduates an opportunity to which few are yet attuned. As Bessen argues, “[a]lthough it is difficult for workers and employers to develop these new skills, this difficulty creates opportunity. Those workers who acquire the latest skills earn good pay; those employers who hire the right workers and train them well can realize the competitive advantages that come with new technologies.”

Increasingly, large law firms are recognizing the need to look to technology to provide missed opportunities for efficiency and to provide a competitive edge. Sensing a shift in the attitude of larger firms, increasing interest in automation, knowledge engineering and artificial intelligent technologies, some have proclaimed the end of days for lawyers. While it is too soon to tell if technology will replace lawyers entirely, and my thought it won’t, it is certainly true that the traditional legal practice is evolving whether practitioners are keen or not. Therefore, it is essential that law school students embrace technology and problem solving tools early, and to advocate for technology courses and the incorporation of applied technology skills into existing course curriculum.

The introduction of courses offering training in the use of technologies in law schools comes at a propitious time. The Federation of Law Societies of Canada has proposed amending the Model Rules of Professional Conduct – the enforceable rules of conduct that set out the baseline standards of professionalism to which lawyers in Canada are to adhere – to include technical competency as a component of the definition of “competency”. If adopted by the Law Society of Upper Canada, or other provinces in Canada, lawyers will have to adapt to meet the changes to the practice of law being brought about by technology. In Ontario, a change to the Model Rules would likely lead to a similar change to the Rules of Professional Conduct, creating a duty for lawyers to be technically competent. Such a technical competency component has already been added to the American Bar Association model rules. Since then, 28 states have adopted the same into their Rules of Professional Conduct. If and when this change to professional competency does occur, the first step for lawyers will be to understand what it means to be technically competent and this may lead us to address this skills gap in the profession.

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One thought on “Do Lawyers and Law Students Have the Technical Skills to Meet the Needs of Future Legal Jobs?

  1. This is an awfully general and vague observation. What can’t the lawyers or law students do? Use a smart phone? Use Word very well? What specific technologies are involved? If a law firm has a time-keeping system, is the law student supposed to know that system before his or her arrival at work? That’s absurd. Or is it that the newly graduated law doesn’t know how to operate Windows very well?

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