Technology Competence for Technophobes

The ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20’s discussion of technology’s impact on law practice and marketing has opened up a wide-ranging discussion in the blogosphere about what constitutes technology competence. Everybody’s got their own set of criteria, and the admonition to “keep abreast of … the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology” is broad enough to keep that discussion going for a while.

It’s becoming more and more difficult to justify bare-bones competence in the face of increasing pressure to become efficient enough to embrace business models like flat-fee services. But how can you “keep abreast of … relevant technology” while running a law practice? Here are some ideas to get you started.

Plugins and Addons: Finding new efficiencies

If spending $39 or even $89 would allow you (or your staff) to crank out a set of commercial financing or estate planning documents faster, would you spend it? For those who find the advanced features of Microsoft Word or Outlook too time-consuming to learn (or who can’t find a feature to meet a specific need), there’s a growing marketplace for plugins and addons. The key is finding one (or two) that meet a critical need in your practice.

For example, Word’s Tables of Authorities has a (justly deserved) reputation as being a bear to use. But if you have a heavy appellate practice, finding a plugin that makes that feature idiot-simple could pay for itself pretty quickly just in the time you save preparing briefs. And that’s not the only instance in which a relatively inexpensive little piece of software can fill a functional gap. Spend a little time researching on Google, and you’ll be amazed at how many creative software developers are out there extending the functionality of Word, Outlook, and the rest of the Microsoft Office suite.

Beyond Word and Outlook: Checking out the rest of Office

Of those firms who use Microsoft Office, nearly 100% of them are using Word and Outlook. But if surveys of my own readers are any indication, far fewer use other Office tools like Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. But don’t assume that Excel is just for financial types, PowerPoint should only be cranked up during trial prep, and OneNote is just a high-tech scrapbook.

Even if you have no intention of using these other applications everyday, you should at least be familiar enough with them to know in what circumstances each would be the right tool for the job. Sure, you can make a list of all those invoices and change orders for your trial exhibit in Word, but if you want to do any analysis with those dollar amounts, you (and your staff) will spend a whole lot less time manipulating it in Excel than in Word. Plus, you’ll have access to some really informative features like pivot tables (my personal favorite).

And don’t be so fast to write off OneNote. Particularly if you’re trying to go paperless (as in “less paper,” not “paper free”), having a virtual (and searchable!) legal pad to store all those bits and pieces of information (including graphics, audio and video) that can otherwise get lost in a case file could wind up being a godsend.

This doesn’t have to become a second job

No, you don’t have to start spending your life taking computer classes. But some incremental, ongoing education and exploration in a few carefully-selected areas will serve you well. The key words there are “incremental” and “ongoing.” Technology competence isn’t a one-shot deal. It’s a moving target.

Where to start? Flip through some of the legal technology periodicals at your local law library (and subscribe to one or two that seem particularly useful). Ask colleagues, both online and off, for tips on what software or hacks they use to solve a specific problem. Commit to spending just a few minutes each week taking short online classes on a site like or Codecademy.

You may never become a bona fide geek. And that’s okay. As long as you keep moving in the right direction.



  1. Avatar Jeff says:

    Thanks for your encouragement to check out Lynda. That site is AWESOME. I want to sign up to start learning. For only $25 a month you can get tons of tech education.

    • @Jeff — Glad that helped. One of the things I like about is that the archive of offerings goes waaaay back. I’m still running an ancient version of Photoshop (so ancient I’m surprised Windows 7 will run it), and when I went to recently to check out the Photoshop classes, they covered my version and at least one earlier one (in addition to all the later ones). Great value for $25/month.

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