The Rise of the Tech-Savvy Unicorn...err...Laywer

I received multiple forwards of this article entitled "The Rise of the Tech-Savvy Lawyer."

Apparently, I can't just enjoy things anymore. I thought it was a good article. I found much in it that I liked. A properly balanced individual would simply recommend it and move on. I, however, am not properly balanced and the siren call of being a blowhard is sometimes too hard to resist.

First, let me offer up an emphatic Amen! to the opening paragraphs:
As a profession, we’re haunted by the specter of our incompetence with technology. We should be. For too long, we’ve clung to our Dictaphones, been duped by elementary phishing attacks, and failed to understand the meaning of “reply‑all.”
These “goofs” of the technically inept are becoming increasingly dangerous in both our businesses and our client representations. You hardly need to mention the threat of data breaches or e‑discovery sanctions to send chills down most lawyers’ spines. And the problem won’t be solved by an influx of younger attorneys who exchanged their pacifiers for iPads. In my personal experience, I’ve found many tech dunces actually to be in the ranks of the younger lawyers.
It was like the author, Jeff Kerr of CaseFleet, was writing me a personal love note. Extolling the importance of tech competence while also puncturing the myth of the digital native. I got goose bumps. But...and you know there has to a but...he lost me:
What are we do to? Who is going to save us from our troubles with technology? The answer is simple: Hire lawyers with technical smarts and reward them for their contributions. The tech-savvy lawyer need not have the ability to write programs in assembly language or understand x86 chip architecture. The main components of tech savviness are curiosity and accrued knowledge on how to get the most out of computers.
But I emphasize that these tech saviors must be lawyers; part of our technology problem stems from pervasively outsourcing solutions to vendors and consultants rather than developing skills ourselves. Even partners must grasp the importance of tech issues and understand the methods by which we’ll achieve the best results.
I yield to no one in my commitment to lawyers developing better tech skills. But that commitment in no way detracts from my affinity for the growing importance of allied professionals. Indeed, one of the objectives of improving lawyer tech skills/comfort is to help them appreciate the role allied professionals can play in delivering superior legal service. While I support the call for lawyers to take ownership of their technical ineptitude, I am loath to endorse anything that would seem to diminish the potential contributions from allied professionals. I want more, not less, diverse teams.

My last couple of columns have made mention of the growing importance of legal operations. I'll write my legal ops post someday. Then again, I am being beat to it. Yesterday, the ACC released their CLO Survey, which found that law departments had doubled their legal ops headcount. The cover of this month's Legaltech News featured Mary O'Carroll, the head of legal ops for Google, and one of the leaders of CLOC. Mary is amazing. She has awards coming out the wazoo for her achievements in the legal industry. Mary, however, is not a lawyer. Apparently, Google doesn't care. Then again, what could they possibly know about tech.

As some of you may have seen, I transitioned from writing a monthly column in the ACC Docket on legal technology to writing a monthly column focused on legal sourcing. My co-author on my new column is not a lawyer (making me guilty by association). But he is the Global Sourcing Officer for Shell Legal. While he does not have a JD, he does have an MBA, a Masters in Technology Management, and experience at three AmLaw 50 firms. Did I mention he is the global sourcing officer for legal services at the third largest company in the world despite not having a JD? It's almost as if he possesses a skill set that would be very hard to acquire while also being a practicing lawyer.

For me, this is a yes and situation. Yes, I am for more tech-savvy lawyers. And, yes, I am for increased utilization of allied professionals. I see them as complementary and mutually reinforcing.

That brings us to Mr. Kerr's definition of "tech-savvy lawyer." I am on record as stating that our baseline is too low. Mr. Kerr, however, sets the bar really, really high:

What are some characteristics of the truly tech-savvy lawyer? To begin with, this lawyer is fascinated with and passionate about technology and the role it plays in our profession—both as an instrument of greater efficiency and a paradigm shift in the ways we litigate cases and think about evidence. She has no fear of tech, enjoys experimenting with new tools and technologies, and solves computer problems with a Google search rather than a call to the help desk. (In fact, this lawyer probably is the help desk already.) She is a magician in Word and Excel. (If a lawyer can’t get the most out of these tools, then good luck with more complicated ones!) She has written some code. She has a strong tech vocabulary and probably knows about things like metadata, encryption and relational databases.
There is probably already some fierce competition for all 17 lawyers who fit that description. The number is likely larger. But my own empirical analysis suggests that less than 5% of lawyers are at baseline competence in Word. The number who are baseline proficient in Excel is an order of magnitude lower. Finding a lawyer who is a magician in both and has done some coding narrows the population down to an extremely small subset. These unicorns exist (one of them is my business partner and best friend). But they are exceedingly rare. Though, like Mr. Kerr, I am all for creating more of them.

I welcome the rise of the tech-savvy lawyer. I also welcome the complementary rise of allied professionals. I'm not sure Mr. Kerr and I even disagree. He wants lawyers to get serious about their own tech competence and not take evasive maneuvers like the delegation dodge. I enjoyed his column and the foregoing is meant in good faith and good fun. Still, words matter. And there are some inartful implications for the role of allied professionals in the words selected.

Casey Flaherty is the founder of Procertas. He is a lawyer, consultant, writer, and speaker focused on achieving the right business outcomes with the right people doing the right work the right way at the right price. Casey created the Service Delivery Review (f.k.a., the Legal Tech Audit), a strategic-sourcing tool that drives deeper supplier relationships by facilitating structured dialogue between law firms and clients. The SDR is premised on rigorous collaboration and the fact that law departments and law firms are not playing a zero sum game--i.e., there is more than enough slack in the legal market for clients to get higher quality work at lower cost while law firms increase profits via improved realizations.
The premise of the Service Delivery Review is that with people and pricing in place, process offers the real levers to drive continuous improvement. Proper collaboration means involving nontraditional stakeholders. A prime example is addressing the need for more training on existing technology. One obstacle is that traditional technology training methods are terribleCompetence-based assessments paired with synchronous, active learning offer a better path forward. Following these principles, Casey created the Legal Technology Assessment platform to reduce total training time, enhance training effectiveness, and deliver benchmarked results.
Connect with Casey on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter (@DCaseyF).

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Carolyn Elefant said...

Wouldn't a truly tech savvy lawyer be using Google docs or SQL? My husband was a gifted programmer who worked at Google, Amazon and a big data startup - and he couldn't use word at all. I doubt if anyone at Google can. Whenever we talk about tech savvy lawyers, I'm always wary of those advocating for use of specific products which merely entrenches them rather than replacing them with something better.

Linda Powell said...

Love the humor in your write-up. Technology has penetrated all professions and maybe lawyers don’t really need to master Word or Excel to prove their ability to adapt. Look at the websites of even small law firms. They are modern and mobile friendly. So many firms have shifted documentation to the Cloud, and are working towards a near paperless office. And of course new methods of payment have also adopted. So, while I loved reading your blog, I can’t say that I agree completely.


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