Law Practice and Shiny Gadgets

Whenever a hot new technology comes out, a few things happen in a more-or-less predictable sequence. First, everyone talks about how it will make life ridiculously more awesome.

Then, lots of people try it, including law bloggers, and start talking about it. Law bloggers generally fall into one of two camps with any new technology: (1) it is The Future of Law, and if you don’t use it, you are probably committing malpractice; or (2) all you need to practice law are a few pieces of birch bark and some charcoal.

Enter the consultants

Regardless what the law bloggers say, consultants and CLE providers soon start selling admission to webinars on how to move your entire law practice onto an iPod Nano or whatever. Apparently, some lawyers actually sign up, which just encourages them to do more vapid seminars.

I recently got a press release from a lawyer-who-has-never-practiced who very conspicuously puts JD after her name (real lawyers never put JD or Esq. after their own names) even though her ten years of experience do not include even one year of actually practicing law, as far as I can tell. She promises to teach lawyers how to use an iPad to practice law for 1 CLE credit.

Please do not go to this CLE or any other seminar or webinar or whatever that promises to teach you how to revolutionize your law practice using a shiny new gadget. Your RSVP just encourages these scammers. And your law practice will not be revolutionized.

Technology is changing; law practice isn’t (much)

Many lawyers seem to take it as a given that technology is changing everything about the practice of law, and fight about whether or not that is a good thing. In reality, technology isn’t changing much about how we practice law. That is, technology is changing plenty about how we do things, but not about what we actually do.

The reason so many lawyers think technology is changing law is that the use of technology in the law is drastically increasing, and most lawyers have no idea what technology is, does, or means. So they assume that all this technology must signify some tectonic shifts in, well, something. It does. In technology.

The thing is, if you can stop being distracted by shiny gadgets, the practice of law today looks a lot like it did 50 years ago. The fact that you can check your email from your car’s dashboard doesn’t mean a contract is suddenly valid without consideration.

Technology is not made of silver bullets

This is a problem, because shiny gadgets can be a distraction from practicing law, which doesn’t actually require any shiny gadgets. They are a distraction from the fundamentals: serving clients and doing legal work. Just because you get a copy of Microsoft Word doesn’t mean your briefs will be more persuasive. That takes years of honing your writing skills. Just because you use an iPad in client meetings doesn’t mean you will have an easier time spotting a client’s potential issues.

Don’t get me wrong, I love me some shiny gadgets. I’ve got plenty, and I wouldn’t want to practice law without them. I just don’t kid myself about their impact on my ability to be a good lawyer. They help me get things done, sometimes cheaper and more efficiently, but they don’t make me a better lawyer.

In law practice, there is no substitute for hard work and experience.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jidnet/2147279266/)

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  • http://constructionlawva.com Christopher G. Hill

    Great thoughts Sam. My attitude toward tech is that if it makes life easier from a client service and practice management standpoint great (reference my Scansnap), but your brain and hard work still carry the day.

    Chris

  • Andrew

    While I don’t think that the actual practice of law has been changed by technology, I do feel as if it has done a few very important things to change the landscape of law – specifically, the removal of barriers to entry and the improvement of research.

    With technology, overhead costs can be kept to a minimum, so it’s much, much easier to start your own practice from limited resources. Formerly, you would need to get a receptionist up-front, have a real office and pay for lots and lots of file cabinets, stationery and an expensive library. Now, all of those costs can be minimized.

    Second, technology has revolutionized the way that we research and investigate, both into law and facts. I have practiced with attorneys who chose not to use electronic research methods, and I feel as if their research was generally a bit lacking. While it’s still possible to do paper research, it’s certainly not as comprehensive as a more modern database search. Also, we have an unprecedented level of easily-accessible information about the average person available freely. We can look up witness’ Facebook pages, find an expert’s previously-published papers or figure out exactly how much is reasonable to expect for medical payments for certain types of injuries, and we can do it quickly and efficiently.

    Therefore, while the actual cranking of widgets may not have changed, I think that any attorney who chooses not to avail themselves of modern technology and to write it all off as irrelevant is doing themselves a disservice.

  • http://www.inter-alia.net Tom Mighell

    This certainly isn’t the first “technology won’t make me a better lawyer” post I’ve read, and it’s not likely to be the last. But like the others, there’s a fundamental disconnect in the argument, between being a good lawyer and providing better services to your clients.

    True, having Word won’t make you more persuasive, but it will make your persuasive arguments look more professional to the other side as well as your client. And an iPad won’t help you spot your client’s issues, but it might help you organize your notes better so you don’t lose them the next time you talk to the client.

    The point of technology is not to make you a better lawyer – it can’t. However, technology can and does help lawyers provide better, more efficient, and cost-effective services to their clients – as you note, it helps you get things done. Client service isn’t just about legal ability – it’s about making the client understand that you are completely taking care of their needs. Even if you know the law down cold and have decades of experience, you can still nevertheless turn a client off for the smallest of reasons – not returning an email or phone message promptly, having a rude receptionist, or getting your billing memos mixed up.

    It’s the same with technology – the calendaring software that helps you to meet deadlines, the accounting software that makes sure you are properly managing your client trust accounts, and even the iPad and cloud service that allows you to instantly look up a document when the client unexpectedly calls you over a weekend when you are at home. None of this makes you a better lawyer – but it sure makes you look good to your client.

    I too am a skeptic of seminars that promise lawyers the world by using a new technology, and I’m certainly no advocate of lawyers rushing out to buy the next, new shiny toy to see if can revolutionize their practice. But I disagree with your statement that “technology isn’t changing much about how we practice law” – if practicing law were only about providing legal advice and being an amazing advocate in court, I’d be closer to agreeing with you. But the “practice” of law is so much more – it’s making sure your bills get out accurately and on time, and that you are communicating with your clients in the way they expect, among other things. In that respect, technology is very much changing the way we practice law.

    I agree that the “technology won’t make you a better lawyer” theme is attractive for generating comments (Exhibit #1 being this post), but it ignores the reality that the right technology, properly used, *will* help you provide better services to your clients – which is of course part of being a good lawyer.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      True, having Word won’t make you more persuasive, but it will make your persuasive arguments look more professional to the other side as well as your client.

      No, that takes typography chops, which most lawyers don’t have no matter what software they use.

      The point of technology is not to make you a better lawyer – it can’t. However, technology can and does help lawyers provide better, more efficient, and cost-effective services to their clients – as you note, it helps you get things done.

      I think I acknowledged this. However, from some of the comments we get here, I think there are plenty of lawyers who think all there is to law practice is a copy of Word and an SEO-optimized website. And I’m not so interested in generating comments as I am in getting comments that aren’t so laser-focused on justifying shiny gadgets, marketing budgets, and conveying the impression of value instead of actually delivering it.

      As I said in my post, I’m a huge fan of the next big thing. But some lawyers seem to focus on the gadget or the software instead of the lawyer who is using it.

  • http://brucegodfrey.com/ Bruce Godfrey

    “They help me get things done, sometimes cheaper and more efficiently, but they don’t make me a better lawyer.” – this.

    I am not convinced that the seminar you describe would be a “scam”, at least not per se. It would probably not be cost-effective for most real-world practitioners, in terms of net benefit (i.e. gross marginal benefit minus gross marginal cost.) Give me the seminar for $20.00 and do it in 60 minutes, and I might take it; at $300/hour rate (my maximum), that’s $320.00 worth of upgrade. Might that enable me to recoup 2-6 hours of time over the next year, or that amount of cash? Maybe.

    Both the mania and the phobia about shiny toys are problematic. The mania is probably more of a problem in this era, but both constitute missing the mark.

  • Bodkin

    It seems that the technology obsession held by lawyers who have never practiced, or who just started practicing (I’m one of those, with a business plan and everything), is a communal delusion that activity represents progress.

  • Mike

    Technology frees me from the office. For me it means getting to a few more kids soccer games and a few more family dinners. A few more weekends out of town, or at the cabin.
    It doesn’t make me a better lawyer but it does make me a better person to be around.

  • http://www.sjfpc.com/ Steven J Fromm

    Sam, another great article. I think a lot of young lawyers (and I guess old ones like myself) got cooked up when the next gadget appears. But being a lawyer is a lifelong process and technology is only an aid to the journey. It sure is easier to draft a will via a computer than an old Selectric typewriter and using white-out. You are probably too young to know about that. But the skills involved are still the same. Great post as always Sam.

  • http://leiflaw.net Dan

    Yes, THANK YOU for finally saying it — while there are legitimate law practice management operations out there, many of whom are experts in what they do, I’m sick of seeing solo consultancies for things like “law firm logo design” or “high-tech law practice consultancy” and such that obviously have no clue what they are talking about. It’s not that the concept is bad: technology CAN improve practice in many ways, and I see far too many firms with ugly design on their letterhead. But there’s no regulation, no real “best of” lists, and so many of the players are simply solos who couldn’t cut it and go off of a gimmick thing without having the subject matter expertise to back up what they’re doing. As a result, well meaning lawyers end up with bad advice.

  • http://jrwlaw.com Josh

    I think this post misses the mark a little.

    I agree that technology is not a panacea for your law practice. Far from it. But technology and “shiny new gadgets” do indeed help me become a better lawyer, albeit indirectly.

    Specifically, my utilization of technology in my law practice enables me to perform numerous administrative tasks more efficiently and cheaply, which frees up time (and money) to spend more time preparing for oral argument, to devote an extra hour to research and finding that elusive case right on point, to spend $1,000 on a substantive CLE (and the time to spend two days away from my office to attend), to reach out to more experienced attorneys for mentorship, and to devote extra time to communicating with clients.

    In other words, to being a better lawyer.

    • http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0027174/ Bill S. Preston, Esq.

      Totally.

  • David W. Lowe, Esq.

    The article was OK even though it was not that well written. I object to some young lawyer who “occasionally designs websites” opining that real lawyers never put JD or Esq after their own names. Absolute nonsense! I have been in practice in California since June 13, 1962, and I use Esq behing my real name as do and have many fine lawyers I have known over the years. Just another arrogant young snob who has an online audience to impress. I am beginning to rethink the advisability of following Lawyerist.