Some people live and breathe technology, they pre-order games, apple watches, apple phones, and gadgets. For tech enthusiasts, each new advancement brings hope and promise and new solutions. The world is ever viewed through the rose-colored glasses of the newest operating system.
Much to the contrary, however, the tech-phobic and self-proclaimed luddites among us shudder at the thought of having to learn yet another new technology. Hard to envision for some, but a simple update to a new phone strikes terror into the heart of anyone who relies on their phone for business. The two hours my new sim card failed was among the most stressful of my life as the “simple home installation process,” devolved into a post-apocalyptic hunt for an actual in-person phone service center during COVID.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that lawyers are notoriously averse to new technology. The entire profession of law is based upon the application of the law in past circumstances to new facts and current problems – a profession steeped in history is ever-backward-looking rather than future-oriented. Accordingly, lawyers typically view novel technological modalities with skepticism and scrutiny. To be sure, long after the advent of the email, papers were still meticulously printed and bound and mailed by US postal mail to the courthouse and adversaries. Absent the pressures of COVID it is unlikely some courts ever would have adopted a paperless electronic filing system.
Technology in the legal realm is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the benefit of the instantaneous exchange of information, whether legal research or document exchange cannot be denied. However, the lack of true security in a web-based environment where lawyers lack the knowledge to, themselves, guard against cyber-attacks (and thus must expose client information to third parties that they task with cyber-security) is rife with its own ethical risks and pitfalls.
Lawyers can control the safeguarding of paper, and copies of the paper, but they cannot guarantee the safety of internet-based information. Having access at the touch of a button to the entirety of one’s files is an extremely attractive prospect, but in the era of ransomware attacks that have shut down cities and hospitals, it is an equally catastrophic prospect as well.
Despite their lack of expertise in this realm, attorneys are still charged with, and ethically responsible, for maintaining the confidentiality of their client files. Accordingly, lack of tech savviness is unlikely to be accepted as a valid excuse. Failure to take adequate precautionary steps has the potential to result in liability if the attorney has not taken reasonable protective measures, such as having insurance coverage for cyberattacks and data loss
While technological advances and the brightest programming minds converge in efforts to create unhackable platforms – lawyers who are out of their element in such a world are best advised to use dual filing forms, electronic and hard copy, and to invest in firewall protection. For bookkeeping, having a data source kept with the bank, which has even higher security requirements, provides for a second source of information being safeguarded.
For example, M&T bank launched Nota as freeware for attorney clients to assist in their IOLTA record-keeping and reconciliation requirements. With bank records as the foundation for reconciliation, and Nota safeguarding notes regarding which client and transaction any given fund transfer relates to, this is just one example of ways in which attorneys can further protect their clients' information electronically, even if they aren’t tech-savvy themselves.
Iphones, Outlook calendars, and electronic organizers are often other tools used in legal practice, but, of course, these tools are only effective if you use them.Technology should be a help, not a hindrance, and for solo practitioners sometimes a balance between the two worlds is just easier.
For example, some small country courts don’t permit cell phones in the courtroom. If you use your phone as a calendar obviously this becomes a problem and would then necessitate keeping both a paper and electronic calendar up to date. For attorneys with the assistance of a support staff perhaps this is feasible, but for solo practitioners working alone this could be a recipe for disaster if any entry is missed or mis-entered.
Attorneys must also consider how they personally synthesize information. There are visual learners, auditory learners, and kinesthetic learners, hybrids of all three, and certainly some with unique learning styles all their own. For auditory learners, just an oral discussion of a matter will promote recall, whereas visual learners prefer to read on a subject, and for kinesthetic learners only the action of writing fully synthesizes information.
When considering appropriate technology for use in a law firm, it is important that all equipment and technology respects and allows for the learning style of the attorneys using the information. Forcing someone to use a technology that is antithetical to their learning style is setting a firm up for failure. Streamlining the process, and using technology wherever it can be beneficial or is required is useful, but the needs of the humans using the technology always has to be considered.
Given that there is a technological version of everything these days, anticipating which tools will be useful can be challenging. Much like discount shopping can result in a cart full of unneeded so-called bargains, so too, can technology become addictive and unnecessary. Anyone who has used law office software knows that there are innumerable functions that no one in the office uses or knows how to use. Paying for unused functions is inefficient, so it is important to focus on what technology is needed.
They always say, don’t go to the grocery store hungry – you will overspend. Well don’t go to the computer store or software firm hungry for the latest gadget either. Instead, take a step back and assess what is working for you in core facets of your firm and what isn’t. [Check out our list of major tech areas to assess for your firm]
Fear of new technology can be paralyzing. I remember working with an attorney who hand wrote everything on yellow paper for his office assistant to type. He never even learned how to turn on his computer. His office assistant typed every motion, letter, or email that left that office. When a medical issue forced her to retire, his entire life was thrown into a tailspin – until he finally came to terms with the fact that he was capable of learning how to use a computer. It took him time, and he needed some IT handholding, but now he is a laptop-toting member of the modern era.
The self-fulfilling prophecy is alive and well in the tech world – if you believe you can learn new technology you will, if you believe you can’t, you won’t. It really is that simple. Allowing technology to streamline tasks means you have more time, whether to spend with family or to work for clients, it is valuable and worth the extra effort to learn.
We are all capable of learning something new, and although age may make us more tech phobic, technology actually helps make things easier in many respects.
At the touch of a button, we can increase print size to put less strain on our eyes, there are programs that allow us to dictate text without the need for a staff member taking short-hand, and messages can be sent with photograph quality attachments, rather than distorted fax scans. Tablets even allow us to take our entire case file with us while carrying a tablet that weighs as little as a notebook.
Perhaps the most important thing for the modern luddite to know is that just because we have wandered far afield from the traditional office methodologies, does not necessarily mean we have lost our way. To the contrary, technology has taken the conveniences of the past and upgraded them. Reluctance to embrace technology is understandable, but in a tech dominated era, it can be risky.
For example, legal treatises cannot be updated in hardcover as quickly as online legal research can – so conducting legal research in a library without using online legal research may mean you are inappropriately relying on outdated law. Or keeping track of your IOLTA funds in a paper ledger relying on your math skills alone is an easy way to make an error that using a program would have avoided.
Errors involving client advice or client funds are obviously something no one wants. More importantly, though, why wouldn’t you want something that makes your life easier and ensures that you are up to date and more efficient in your legal practice, especially if it will help avoid such errors?
Smart and strategic technology upgrades are an easy win for solo practices and small offices. Let the technology be the extra set of hands you need as you multi-task throughout the day. No doubt you can use and deserve the help. So, take a big breath, exhale that fear, and embrace this change.
Some of us will never be “tech-savvy,” but tech literate gets the job done. Take things one day at a time, one new technology at a time, and you and your office will be tech users before you know it.
- Heather Abissi
Heather M. Abissi, an attorney beginning her 15th year of practice, having served as an Executive Assistant District Attorney, Criminal Defense Attorney, Civil Rights Attorney, Tort Attorney, Family Law Attorney, Matrimonial Attorney, and Senior Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City of New York, and Corporate Outside Counsel, has a practice focused on legal writing, editing, contract negotiation, oral argument, trial support and strategy. The goal of her practice is to improve the work-life balance of attorneys by allowing them to outsource time consuming legal documents, and peace of mind to corporate clients who need detail oriented personal attention to their contracts rather than boilerplate.