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Comment: Digital skills – learning opportunities for lawyers?

For law firms to successfully enact their digital transformation they need the individual lawyers to adopt technology more effectively in their day to day activities. Otherwise, investment is wasted, transformation stalls, costs rise, and market competitiveness is lost, says Mike McGlinchey.

By Mike McGlinchey

People, process and technology is the mantra that is often used to support the drive for innovation. Law is a people business, and we are good at understanding the role that wider professional skillsets can bring to the delivery of legal services. From my experience lawyers are also quite good at the process element. Yes, Lean Six Sigma support can bring tremendous value, however, lawyers are well placed to scribble out a diagram of their legal processes to aid training and understanding for other teams. What about the technology element though? Law firms are embracing digital transformation agendas but what about the individual lawyers?

It has long been a challenge to attract lawyers to attend IT training. Competing with an already busy diary of billable hours and compliance training, well-intentioned IT training sessions can slip past unprioritised and unattended. Equally, a perception that the workshop will be reminiscent of their school ICT lessons – dozing off whilst the battered Microsoft ’95 PC struggles to boot – leaves many unenthusiastic to attend.

For law firms to successfully enact their digital transformation they need the individual lawyers to adopt technology more effectively in their day to day activities. Otherwise, investment is wasted, transformation stalls, costs rise, and market competitiveness is lost.

The impact of Covid-19 and the forced impact of remote working has shown that lawyers are capable of quickly adopting technologies. According to a survey by Luminance, most senior lawyers recognise the importance of technology to drive efficiencies and meet budgetary challenges. While the next generation of lawyers will be more tech savvy, due to an improved computer science curriculum and law course revision to include hands-on experience of LegalTech, how can today’s lawyers be upskilled to ensure more effective use of technology?  

Technology or LegalTech?

There is a lot of emerging technology aimed specifically at legal. Document review, due diligence, transaction management and litigation support are areas where technology can bring great benefits. However, there is also the day to day technology that we all need to use and by doing so more effectively can have just as much of a positive impact.

Focusing on the general use, technologies can bring as many benefits as the specialist tools that solve specific problems.

Surfacing the capabilities of Excel (hint: it is not just for numbers) or using Adobe Acrobat reader to add comments or a digital signature can give you the tools to improve your digital working life.

Arguably it is the technology industry that needs to do more to help everyone make better use of technology.

Let’s go bananas! (or a Plum assignment?)

Some of you might remember Apricot computers; many will remember Blackberry while there is a fair chance you will be reading this on an Apple device.

Apple’s mantra is that their technology should be easy to use, otherwise, it’s valueless. Before purchasing a new technology for the firm, it’s worth analysing its accessibility too. If the systems are easy to use and need little or no training, you’re more likely to get lawyers on board using the technology. Functional capabilities are one thing, but if you are buying or building technology the user interface (UI) and even more so the user experience (UX) are critical elements of the end product. I’m not sure we will get to the stage where lawyers just have to have the latest version of that time tracking software as they do the latest iPhone, but let’s make that the objective!

Link the legal process with the technology

If a lawyer has to remember to do something the chances are they won’t when they are busy and under tight timelines. Link the legal process with the technology -this way it becomes embedded and integrated quicker if it is essential, and beneficial, to complete the process.

Lawyers have a responsibility too

Yes, of course they do. The SRA Standards and Regulations and the rules regarding code of conduct are likely to be well understood by lawyers. Are you  performing your undertakings in a timely manner if you are doing so manually when simple technology tools are available? More seriously, what risks are there to client confidentiality if you misunderstand the security around online tools, never mind inadvertently sending an email to the wrong, but identically named Outlook contact?

Lawyers have an obligation to maintain their legal skills but also to ensure they support their clients with efficiency where technology can assist and confidentiality where technology can be a risk.

Is training the answer?

Possibly, possibly not. If systems are well designed training becomes less relevant. Sharing knowledge and educating people is still important but the way we do it is changing.

If we can encourage self-learning, knowledge sharing (a traditional challenge for lawyers) and promote Communities of Practice then we might find less need to run traditional training courses.

At Pinsent Masons our digital transformation agenda is exploring how best to engage our legal community in technology adoption. We are asking whether that should involve compulsory compliance training, how lawyers can be encouraged to share and learn from each other and how technology can be designed with the legal outcome at the forefront.

Our IT training team is now our Digital Skills team. It is more than a rebrand though, with a focus on developing a technical academy and digital certificates as qualifications.

Do we need legal technologists or technology skilled lawyers?

We need both. For lawyers, there are three areas of focus for improving IT skills:

  1. Learn more about the everyday tools you should be using
  2. Develop a deep understanding of the specialist tools you use for specific types of work
  3. Be curious and understand the potential of technology to support you. Knowing what is possible will allow you to explore whether you already have the tools and ask the right questions when you don’t.

For those wanting a deeper dive I would recommend this Harvard Computer Science for Lawyers Online course. We all have a responsibility to learn and develop and with the right tools and knowledge, we can give our clients the best service possible and make our own working lives a little better too.

Mike McGlinchey is Head of Consulting and Technology for Pinsent Masons Vario