The evolution of technology has changed the way we practice law, making all of us more mobile. It allows us to leave the office to spend time with friends and family while still protecting our practices and addressing clients’ needs. Many attorneys have even moved into a virtual office arrangement, using shared facilities for client meetings but otherwise working elsewhere.
Technology Is Now Essential
Lawyers must employ technology to function successfully in today’s world. Technology impacts almost all aspects of our practice. Some technology (such as telecommunications devices, computers, and the Internet) has established itself as so basic that we cannot conceive of running a practice without it. Other technology has made itself useful, if not indispensable, in particular practice areas, such as presentation technology for trial work.
Many attorneys consider modern technology bothersome, even intimidating. As a result, some have managed to keep technology at bay. Lawyers will find that road increasingly difficult to follow—particularly if they want to stay competitive. In fact, doing so could create ethical issues for you and your firm. You have an obligation to provide effective representation to your clients at a reasonable cost. If technology allows you to work more efficiently and at a lower cost, but you decide not to use it, you have arguably breached an ethical duty to your client. How can you justify spending five hours researching a memorandum of points and authorities using books when you could do the same research in 20 minutes online? Certainly, your clients would not care if you only billed for the 20 minutes, but that strategy will likely make it difficult to continue to pay your bills. If you make it your practice to charge for the five hours, your clients will likely care and, moreover, so might your state bar. Your clients will likely also care if you did not find a recent decision that could have helped their case available online but not yet available to you in the advance sheets for use in a physical library.
Approach with Caution
Technology is a double-edged sword in that we must use it, but its use creates potential dangers for us as attorneys, posing issues running the gamut from ethical to practical, from temporal to economic. Attorneys have historically moved cautiously and with trepidation into new technology. Although attorneys must still move cautiously respecting technology, the intersection of technology and the practice of law mandate that we move more quickly into new technology than we have historically.
Prepare for the Worst
Every lawyer who uses technology needs a functional backup procedure and a viable disaster plan. As a result of the paradigm shift from paper to electronic files, lawyers are not only at risk of natural and man-made disasters destroying their client files, but also of equipment failure causing a loss of the files. At the same time, technology has given us the ability to easily back up these documents. There is no valid excuse not to have the files backed up and safely stored so as to keep the information available to us, notwithstanding an equipment failure or a natural disaster.
Having a disaster plan represents a part of the caution and the common sense that attorneys must exercise when using technology. The failure to have a viable disaster plan to enable you to get up and running in short order following a disaster such as the 9/11 attacks, the 1989 earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area, or Hurricane Katrina poses a serious issue for an attorney’s office.
Attorneys in a solo or small firm setting generally lack the resources of attorneys in larger firms. On the other hand, they do not have the baggage of larger practices and can adapt more quickly and easily to newer and better technology.
Keep an open mind about technology and technological advances and the role that they can play in your law practice. Try to stay relatively current in your technology. Darwin teaches us that the fittest survive and that adaptability dictates fitness to survive. The more adaptable the species, the better it fares. The same rules apply to law practices. Those less fit cannot keep up and eventually will drop out of the hunt. Adaptability provides the key. It represents the essence of survival skills. Those most capable of adaptation will roll with the blows of economic downturns and adjust to the times. Properly employed, technology facilitates the rapid adaptation of a practice to changing times and circumstances.
We All Want Security
Our growing dependency on technology and our duty to preserve client confidentiality create an almost continuous tension. Attorneys must exercise caution to ensure that technology does not compromise the confidentiality of communications with their clients. As attorneys move toward running their practice on computers and storing much of their client information electronically, attorneys must ensure that they do not lose (and that others do not gain) access to that data. These risks do not represent new concepts for attorneys. What has changed is the nature of the risk and the means of protecting themselves and their practice (and their clients) from the risks.
Be the Master of Your Technology
Although lawyers must implement new technology to stay in the hunt, they cannot do so improvidently. Technology can function as a servant or a master. Approach technology with care to ensure that you remain the master. Many attorneys get so wrapped up in new technology that they lose sight of the forest and run into a few trees.
If, in the process of implementing new technology, you discover the technology decreases your efficiency, accept that you made a mistake and cut your losses. Technology can do that to you. On the one hand, it can save you considerable time and effort. On the other, it can make tasks take longer by creating additional work that does not provide a commensurate benefit.
Seek a Positive Return On Investment
Your investment in any technology includes your time to choose, learn, implement, and master the technology, not just its acquisition cost. The value of the time you spend implementing new technology generally exceeds its purchase price.
You need to evaluate the functioning of any new technology you implement. If you discover that you erred (none of us is perfect) and drop that technology, you will lose money. Deal with it! If you quickly realize your error and cut your losses, you will lose less in the long run than had you continued to pour time and money into trying to make it work.
Make a Plan
Adopt a technology plan as a prelude to implementing new technology; regularly update that plan. A good technology plan considers the type and nature of the technology you will adopt, the selection process, implementation, maintenance, backup, and security. No matter what technology you employ, you must remain the master and let the technology serve you. Failing to do that will make you less efficient.
Technology can serve as an equalizer, allowing smaller firms to compete successfully with larger firms by making us more effective and more efficient in our practice of law. Take advantage of this flexibility and endeavor to stay ahead of the curve in employing technology in your practice. I most emphatically do not, however, recommend that you live (or practice) on technology’s bleeding edge. Let those of us who write about technology do that for you and tell you about the experience; it gives us something to write about!