If I am in a room with an academic law librarian for more than five minutes, I almost always get some form of this question:

What are the tech skills I should be teaching law students to better prepare them for working in the ‘real world?’

My answer is a pretty standard one. “Make sure they know the basics… then we can teach them the unique skills needed for our particular firm.” The same question came up last Friday when I was on the Law Librarians Conversation podcast with Rich Leiter, Roger Skalbeck, Elizabeth Farrell, Ken Hirsh, Darin Fox, and Michael Robak. Knowing the cool stuff is secondary to knowing the basics.

What are the basics? My guess is that you already know (especially if you’ve read any of my co-geek, Casey Flaherty, posts.)

  • MS Word – especially style sheets and any basic tasks that are automated rather than manual.
  • MS Excel – with some basic understandings of formulas, especially simple math formulas, sorting and filtering.
  • Adobe PDF – Focus on how to effectively use PDF and exporting from other programs like Word.
  • MS PowerPoint – pretty much Google “Death by PowerPoint” and learn the what not to do lessons.
  • MS Outlook – learn rules and foldering. Once you’re at your firm, learn how Outlook interacts with your document management system (DMS) and be an avid filer and rule follower for the DMS standards of your firm. 
It is amazing how many Associates show up at their firms, having attended seven  years of higher education, and do not have these basic skills mastered. According to Casey Flaherty and Darth Vaughn’s ABA Journal article, “Tech comes naturally to ‘digital native’ millennials? That’s a myth” only about a third law law students get these tasks right on the first try:

  • Accept/Turn-off track changes.
  • Cut & Paste.
  • Replace text.
  • Format font and paragraph.
  • Fix footers.
  • Insert hyperlink.
  • Apply/Modify style.
  • Insert/Update cross-references.
  • Insert page break.
  • Insert non-breaking space.
  • Clean document properties.
  • Create comparison document (i.e., a redline). 
That’s not to say that Millennials don’t have tech skills, it just shows that there is a difference in being a consumer of technology and mastering technology needed for the practice of law.  
I commonly say that learning these basic tasks isn’t sexy, but it is necessary to understand before you can really get to the “sexy” technology later. Darin Fox, Law Library Director from the University of Oklahoma, corrected me on the Podcast and said that when his law students see what happens when they apply style sheets to documents, they light up, and think it is very sexy. I have forgotten how exciting it was when I first learned how to create a non-breaking space, and what affect that had on my documents, or the time I read Typography for Lawyers and finally understood why the old standard of double-spacing after a period was no longer the way to draft a document. There is a certain sexiness in creating a document that looks good, and does some “magical” formatting, or a spreadsheet with a built-in formula that displays information compiled from multiple locations. 
Even if you don’t find the basic skills as sexy as some of us do, it is still necessary. When I talk to law students, I usually tell them that if they want to get into the really advanced technology and be seen as a tech guru at their firm (small or large), then learn the basic stuff first, show everyone that you’ve got that down, and then you’ll be the first person on the list when it comes time to try out the newest innovations. There’s so much going on in the legal tech world right now, that I think it is rivaling the dot com era. Artificial Intelligence is such a buzz right now, that I think we may be on the cusp of an AI boom/bust in legal. High tech courtrooms are more and more common, and I even got a peak at the Virtual Reality station in Darin Fox’s library. 
With so many new and exciting tools coming on the market, law firms need help understanding which tools actually work best with the way the law firm works and practices law. We need attorneys to step up and test these exciting tools, and if you want to be that cutting edge attorney, then position yourself early by mastering those basic skills.
  • Moe

    We should be expecting the fundamentals of the Office Suite to begin being taught and used in HIGH SCHOOL. I am only aware of one city where this is happening, Austin, TX. The alma mater of Michelle Spencer, @txmischief and Founder at Legal Learning Development Network, is not only teaching the suite, it is getting the students MOS certified. THAT is how to prepare students for life in the 21st century.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think it is the responsibility of law schools to teach technology fundamentals. It isn’t their domain. I learned a majority of these skills listed by writing papers, and doing presentations for my undergrad classes. Are law school graduates no longer writing papers that require them to insert a page break? If new hires do not possess these fundamental skills, than you might want to reconsider hiring them.

    As a software developer for prosecutors, I can tell you that a significant amount of document creation can be done by systems such as OnBase. In the not too distant future, most document creation will likely be automated by legal digital assistants and software similar to Quill, by Narrative Science. This technology is currently used by major news organizations to automate the content generation process.

    If you are a law student and would like to learn these skills, look at YouTube. Microsoft Press also has free eBooks that teach some of these skills. Best of all, it’s free. Don’t pay hundreds of dollars a credit hour charged by law schools to learn the basics.

  • It's true. A significant number of associates show up each year without basic MS Word knowledge. I agree with a previous comment that this should be basic high school. I guess you run the risk that MS Word will eventually be outdated, but presumably the same concepts will transfer over.

    Although my biggest complaint about technology skills is the antiquated software that most law firms use. It's bizarre that even "cutting edge" law firms are running legacy software like Microsoft Office 2010. It's been almost 7 years! Any tech guy knows that's a lifetime in software development.

  • Anonymous

    Agree 100% with this statement from Biglaw Investor:

    Although my biggest complaint about technology skills is the antiquated software that most law firms use. It's bizarre that even "cutting edge" law firms are running legacy software like Microsoft Office 2010. It's been almost 7 years! Any tech guy knows that's a lifetime in software development.

    Culture change is probably my biggest obstacle when it comes to implementing and educating firms on the rapidly changing technological landscape.

    A great case study I like to use for culture and technology change at a law firm is Riverview Law. Below is a quote from a recent article on their change in direction:

    After many philosophical discussions, the organization changed their business model from being a legal services provider with tech-enabled solutions, to a tech company with deep legal domain expertise.

  • Anonymous

    I honestly think it's a waste of time to teach these skills in high school. I actually had a course in high school where we used word processors and spreadsheets extensively. The main skills I took away even a decade later were from the extensive typing practice letting me crank out papers in half the time of my classmates (a useful skill if most law firms didn't reward inefficiency). The word processors available when I was in high school were so different from what I used in college (DOS-based Wordperfect), law school school (Office 95), and today. Similarly, by the time today's high school students are in law school, the tools will be different and one can only guess what the dominant systems will be. Furthermore, few papers written by undergrads will make use of Excel functions a lawyer should be at least passingly familiar with, such as SHOWIF and VLOOKUP. I don't think they need to develop a series of courses on their own, but law schools could at least make sure the universities offer relevant technology training through existing resources, perhaps can offer some on-site opportunities, and that students are made well aware of these and which would be most useful and why. Furthermore, seminar professors, rather than emulating an academic article format for their students' written product, might explore other options requiring some use of data analysis and visualization, giving presentations, and so on.