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Succession Planning Strategies: Dos and Don'ts.
Succession Planning Strategies: Dos and Don'ts.
Learn how this litigator and legal technologist balances his roles.
After being admitted to the State Bar of Texas in 1990, Tom Mighell set about building a practice in general personal injury defense litigation. As he honed his skills in ensuing years, he developed an emphasis on child-care liability cases—but he also found himself honing a distinctive expertise in legal technology. He now holds a unique lawyer-technologist position in his firm and is serving as ABA TECHSHOW® 2008 Chair. In addition, he is a frequent lecturer and author on a variety of technology-related topics. A contributor to the 2006 ABA book Information Security for Lawyers and Law Firms, he is also coauthoring an upcoming book on collaboration technologies for lawyers. Here’s what led him on his path.
It seems you were destined to be a lawyer from an early age. Did you ever consider alternatives?
TM: My parents tell the story that when I was 3 years old I informed them that I wanted to be a “yawyer.” My dad is a lawyer, having worked for the Justice Department for 20 years and then here at Cowles & Thompson for the past 20 years. I always liked what he did, and I always enjoyed debating (arguing?) with people, so becoming a lawyer myself was a natural progression.
The first time I considered an alternative (surprisingly or not) was about two years after I became a lawyer. I suddenly developed an interest in teaching and thought of becoming a high school history teacher. Happily, over the years, I’ve been able to merge my interest in teaching with my experience in the law and now my love of technology. In my position at my firm, I get to teach the lawyers here how to use technology, and I also speak at many seminars each year, showing lawyers the best ways to incorporate technology into their practices.
Most people expect lawyer tech-heads to come from tech-head backgrounds. But that wasn’t your path. How does a liberal arts kind of guy become a go-to technology kind of guy?
TM: You’re right, I was definitely not a tech-head in college. The evolution began when I got out of law school and I lived at home for a year to save up money. As you might imagine, living with your parents can put a crimp in a guy’s social life, so I wound up spending more and more time on the computer. I started out joining PC Link—the DOS version of what ultimately became AOL—and within days I was hooked. My first month’s bill was $600! I know, pathetic—but don’t worry, I recovered. Over the years, I got my Internet “addiction” under control and began to take a greater interest in technology in general.
But that doesn’t mean my passion for the Internet abated. In 2000 I decided I wanted to share my knowledge of Internet research with others, so I started publishing the Internet Legal Research Weekly, a free newsletter that I still send out today. It has a great (and devoted) following. However, as Internet technologies advanced I realized that a newsletter wasn’t the only way I could communicate with the legal community. I started reading blogs back in early 2002, and in August of that year I launched Inter Alia, my own Internet legal research Weblog.
What they say about blogs is true—they have an amazing ability to get their authors noticed. Within a few months of starting Inter Alia I was being asked to speak on legal research around the country. It wasn’t long before I connected with some motley folks involved with something called ABA TECHSHOW, and it’s been great fun ever since. It’s a little like being on the Island of Misfit Toys—once you know there are others like you out there, it makes things a lot easier.
You’ve moved away from active practice. Describe your current role and how it has evolved in recent years.
TM: A few years ago, I realized that practicing law full-time was not a high priority for me. At the same time, I recognized that while our IT department provided terrific service to the firm in general, it was understaffed to help the lawyers themselves with what now would be called litigation support—in other words, assisting lawyers in using different types of technology in their daily practices. I had been a member of the firm’s technology committee for a number of years, and I was already primarily responsible for keeping the firm Web site up to date, so I was definitely involved in technology long before my role in the firm changed.
That change “officially” came about when the firm approached me first, in 2002, suggesting that I become a “litigation technology support coordinator” while still practicing law to the extent that I was able. My job description, which has pretty much stayed the same in the past few years, includes providing support to our lawyers and paralegals for the technology used in their practices. I evaluate legal software for firm use; I train attorneys and paralegals on our time and billing system as well as any other type of law-related technology we use; and I assist lawyers in the discovery phase with setting up document review databases and other litigation tools. I also prepare for and conduct trial presentations with the other attorneys, which has a dual benefit—we are able to utilize technology at trial without hiring an outside service and the client gets an additional experienced lawyer at trial, at a reduced rate.
I am also still responsible for maintaining the firm Web site (including participating in its design), and I deal with much of the electronic marketing material for the firm. And to the extent that I can help anyone in the firm with a technology issue, I’m also a loose connection to the IT department.
In addition, in the past year or so, my role has expanded in that I am more involved in training our younger attorneys, helping to develop associate training programs as well as a mentoring program for the firm. I think that’s connected to my desire to teach people and help them develop, whether it’s in technology specifically or in their broader professional development.
As for the practice of law these days, I like to describe myself now as “about 10 percent lawyer”—although some days it’s more like 25 percent.
How do you relate to the pure IT people in your firm? Do they “get” you? Do you get them?
TM: I think there is always a tension between IT staff and lawyers, although I don’t know just why. I’m guessing my crossing over into their turf has created a different type of tension, but I hope that’s not the case. In general, though, an IT department’s desire to keep the network safe, secure and running 24-7—and all that within the budget—can lead it to be very cautious when introducing new technologies. By contrast, lawyer-technologists like me come to the job with the attitude that if practitioners want to make use of an interesting technology in their practice, we should accommodate them if at all possible. The right answer may lay somewhere in between—getting lawyers the technology they want without compromising security or busting the budget.
Unlike the folks in IT, I am almost completely self-taught in technology, and there are a lot of areas that I just don’t get. I don’t really understand how either the network or our hardware operates, and I really don’t want to—so I definitely rely on IT for their expertise in those areas. My preference is more on the front end, teaching lawyers to better use the technology available to them. I think we complement each other well.
How do you see your role evolving over the next few years? Will more midsize firms make room for professionals with your job description?
TM: I’ll be interested to see how midsize firms respond to the increasing use of technology in coming years. Right now, though, I think my situation is unusual and I don’t imagine there are many practicing lawyers providing the types of technology services I give to the firm. I don’t see firms looking outside for people with my job description. More likely they will have someone like me already working for them, or they will simply outsource the work or hire an extra litigation support employee.
As far as my role here is concerned, I’d love to expand my work outside the firm to solos and smaller firms that lack the overhead to compete with bigger firms in terms of technology. I envision providing many of the same functions I provide to the lawyers here, including training and trial support. In addition, I’d provide consulting services to these firms to make sure they are outfitted with the technology that’s right for their practices. Interestingly, some members of my firm are intrigued by this prospect as well, which could lead to very interesting times in the years to come.
Mark Tamminga practices law at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Hamilton, ON.