by Joanne Humber of Humber Associates

Since the recession hit in 2008 most UK law firms have reduced support staff numbers. Document production departments have either gone, been outsourced or been drastically reduced in size. Many secretaries have been replaced by paralegals who are generally not Word experts and have little idea about formatting documentation when they come out of law school, and the days when you had someone to call on who could explain the vagaries of Word or sort out a corrupt document for you in minutes are over.

IT training is resisted and yet it is critical. Lack of knowledge is not just time consuming, annoying and frustrating it poses considerable risk to a law firm. The head of document production at a top 100 London law firm who sees problem documents every day believes “someone is going to get sued” before firms realise that their lawyers need far better basic technology skills in order to reduce risk.

Does any of this sound familiar?

• A client sent a useful document to a colleague several weeks ago and they forwarded it to you as it may be useful – it takes you ages to find it as you have hundreds of emails from the same colleague.

• You have a 90 page document, you have removed several clauses and you need to update the table of contents and cross references so the page numbers are still correct but how?

• You have run a spellcheck but there are still mistakes in the document when you check it over.

• There is a spreadsheet in the matter file containing a lot of complex data you need to add to your document…quickly…but how?

• You want to attach a document and a spreadsheet to your email in PDF format so that it can’t be edited, how do you do that?

• You need to apply the firm’s house style headings to your document but don’t really understand what styles are!

These are all fairly familiar to anyone working in a modern law firm yet lack of knowledge means that dealing with them often takes far longer than necessary. Documents are frequently sent from firm to firm showing tracked changes which the other party should not see. Do lawyers, no matter what age or experience they have, really understand section breaks, automatic numbering, styles, page breaks, hyperlinks, tables and tabs? Few realise the importance of cutting and pasting text only to protect a document’s formatting.

It is well known that attending IT training is unpopular and yet there are considerable risks associated with such fundamental skills gaps, not least because of the unnecessary amounts of time that can be wasted as a result. The arrival of LTC4 (Legal Technology Core Competency Certification Coalition) on the scene has been welcomed by corporate counsel as it provides a benchmark for the industry and by clients who are demanding more transparency. Competence with technology is no longer just nice-to-have it is as essential as knowledge of law and will become more and more important as competition grows more and more fierce.

What’s the solution? The answer lies both with the trainer and the lawyer – training must focus more on what is relevant to the individual’s way of working and must take account of the reality of time pressure. Trainers must try harder to understand the firm’s goals and to make intelligent assessments of an individual requirements from technology so that they can provide resources that will help at the point of need as well as improving skills – whether that is online help, quick tips, short workshops or desk-side training sessions. And lawyers must make the effort to learn!