Colin Levy is a legal technologist and former in-house attorney who blogs about legal tech topics at colinslevy.com.
The legal industry’s resistance to adopting new technology is a source of frustration for the corporate clients law firms serve, and for younger generations of lawyers who appreciate the power and efficiencies the right technological tools can bring to solving problems. While some legitimate concerns lay at the heart of law firms’ reluctance — such as a focus on information security and simply being too busy serving clients to make changes to processes — it’s also true that some law firms simply resist change. Many leaders still treat technology as a nice-to-have option rather than the business imperative it is.
But things don’t have to be this way. Tech doesn’t have to be scary, and it may not even be expensive. Here are some truths about tech that may help law firm leaders keep an open mind:
“Tech” means much more than shiny new apps.
Law firm leaders who resist integrating technological tools into the day-to-day work process of their firms often envision technology as large-scale, complicated programs and apps that are very expensive and require time-consuming training for lawyers and staff. Those tools do exist, and some can be gamechangers for firms. But technology also encompasses other, much humbler, approaches.
Technology can be a process or method that enables one to accomplish a task or solve a problem. A paper calendar is a technology that improved upon the former approach of trying to remember all your appointments. Digital calendars further optimize the scheduling experience by both keeping track of your schedule and sending you automated reminders if you get distracted and forget where you are supposed to be. This technology is relatively small scale, but it has changed how professionals manage their time and communicate with colleagues and clients. It has made work more efficient.
When we remember that a new tech tool can simply be finding the right solution to a single problem and may even be simply better utilizing the functionality of tools a firm already has in place, the barrier to entry — and the anxiety level — goes down.
You can start small.
When it comes to adopting technology, firms don’t have to go big right off the bat. And often they shouldn’t. Throwing everything out to start from scratch is not a practical approach for an organization that needs to provide continuity of service to clients. Firms can start smaller, by piloting a new process in a single practice area or within a single team to test the waters and gather feedback before broadening the program to the rest of the firm. Innovation-minded leaders can identify small, achievable changes and figure out how to implement them. Building on those successes — and increasing buy-in from more reluctant members of the firm — will allow everyone to learn at a reasonable pace and make it less likely the firm will blow its tech budget on a single splashy tool that turns out to be a flop.
You can’t find a solution until you understand the problem.
If your sole source of information on your firm’s tech problems is the sales rep for the company that wants to sell you a new application or system, it’s time to pump the brakes. Before you implement any changes in your work processes, you first need to understand how your lawyers are working.
How can leaders gather this information? Appoint a point person or team to systematically interview key department heads about their current approach to their work. What tech are they using for what purposes? What are the biggest headaches and causes of inefficiency? What is their level of fluency with the current tools they use? Are there features they don’t know about that may help them? This can be a time-consuming endeavor, and the hours are not billable, but conducting this due diligence on work process is an investment in future efficiency and improved client service.
The results of this fact-finding effort will enable you to develop a clear understanding of the problem(s) you need to solve before you seek specific technologies. And while purchasing a new program may be the answer, you may find it just as effective to improve your existing processes, procedures and workflow. That may not be flashy, but it counts as innovation too.
Tech is not going to “replace” lawyers.
Some lawyers resist adopting new technology because they find it threatening. For years, they have been warned that AI tools might be capable of automating tasks that human lawyers traditionally performed, and this would somehow render them obsolete.
But the first wave of these applications have been in use for a few years now, and instead of supplanting lawyers they have empowered them to be more productive and better attuned to meet their clients’ needs. Not only do these tools automate repetitive tasks like categorizing and summarizing documents, or ensuring consistency of contracts, they also provide analytics that help lawyers move from anecdotal to data-driven insights for clients.
Many lawyers have experienced the uncomfortable realization that their client knows more about a tech tool than they do. That should be a wake-up call. Facility with technology has become a crucial aspect of client service.
The culture of law is working against you.
Lawyers are taught never to ask a question they don’t know the answer to. This may be an effective approach to deposing a witness, but it’s a dysfunctional way to run an organization. Your firm can only grow and evolve to meet the demands of the changing marketplace if you will acknowledge what you don’t know and learn from people with other areas of expertise. That includes learning from people who understand how technology could improve your work process.
Lawyers are also trained to scan the horizon for worst-case scenarios and potential downsides to any proposed change. But they are less equipped to imagine the upsides: how efficiency might improve, how much clients would value a streamlined process and access to better data. There are ways to mitigate the risks new technologies pose so law firms and clients can reap the benefits. But lawyers must step out of their conditioning and comfort zone to imagine a new path forward.
The situation is urgent and will affect your business.
It’s impossible to overstate the urgent need for law firms to embrace technology. Whether we like it or not, tech is continuing to advance, and the businesses law firms serve are innovating and changing at a pace much faster than the legal industry. When these clients ask questions their legal service providers can’t answer, the client may consider taking their business to more innovative law firms, Big 4 professional service companies or other alternative legal service providers. The competition will only get fiercer.
If all of that isn’t enough to convince you, consider the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which now includes an amendment to Comment 8 of Rule 1.1, adding a duty of tech competency: “To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with technology…” Thirty-nine states have adopted the revised comment, and more will follow.
It’s understandable that law firm leaders feel overwhelmed and daunted by bringing their firms into the 21st century. But ignoring the need to implement better tools that serve both lawyers and clients will only make the problem worse. Start small but start now to get your firm on the path to innovation.