July/August 2020

Practice Management Advice

Keeping Up With Technology Attracts Talent

Heidi A. Barcus

Lawyers know that we have a duty to keep up with technology. There is no question that we have an ethical obligation under the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to know how to use the latest technology. The obligation stems from the requirement that we provide competent representation to clients. There are also practical reasons to incorporate technology in our practices. We must do this in order to bring in and maintain clients. Every day our clients communicate with their doctor and accountant using client portals and text messages. They are used to checking their medical records and tax returns on a portal. Additionally, most professional organizations now utilize a portal for key documents. It has become expected. We must keep up with the changes in technology in order stay relevant.

Most importantly, failing to keep up with technology can lead to embarrassing and expensive data breaches. Small firms are finding themselves targets of cyber criminals because of the amount of personally identifiable information they maintain in their files and the relatively few protections most small firms take to protect that data. Finally, as economic pressures increase for lawyers, finding ways to work as efficiently as possible is the only way we are going to be able to survive in the coming years. If I can find a way to do my work faster, not only will the client benefit, but I may find a way to get home before dark. These reasons alone should be motivation to update your firm technology.

However, consider this additional reason to start implementing technology into your practice immediately. You will no longer be able to attract the most talented lawyers if you don’t modernize your practice. At the end of February, I attended the Law Practice Division’s (LP) ABA TECHSHOW 2020 in Chicago. During one of the sessions, I was seated with a group of four law students from Texas, California and Florida. Each expressed frustration with the law firms where they were clerking. They found the practicing lawyers were behind the times and not doing anything to update their practices. On the first day of work, one of students was handed a paper policy and procedure manual. It contained a sample client intake form. The student couldn’t believe the lawyer was using paper intake forms, let alone distributing a paper policy and procedure manual. She spent her first few weeks there converting the intake forms to an electronic version that could be maintained in a searchable database. Despite the incredible value this student brought to this firm, she had no intention of working there after graduation. She wanted to work someplace that was modern and up to date. One after another, each third-year student expressed similar frustrations with their firms. The only way to keep and attract top talent is to start adopting some technological changes.

So, why aren’t firms eagerly embracing technology? First, change is difficult. The practice of law is time-consuming. Most of us feel like we are barely keeping our heads above water at the end of the day. Adopting any change seems insurmountable. Taking on any change that would slow us down is just frightening. Secondly, deciding what technology we need is overwhelming and confusing. There are too many legal technology providers out there. Choosing what we need and which provider best suits the requirements of our firms can bring the process to a screeching halt. My best advice is to start slowly. Try not to become overwhelmed by the options available. Here are a few simple first steps you can take.

Ask your law clerks what they would change about your practice.

If you have a law clerk in your office now, ask that clerk how you can begin to automate your practice. You have a valuable resource at your fingertips. The student who took on the client intake form and created a database for the firm is an example of what you can do quickly and without disruption to your current caseload. If you do not have a law clerk, take a new graduate to lunch and find out what the student saw during clerkships. Bar results are coming out soon, and there is a whole class of new graduates eager to have contact with a practicing lawyer.

Consider serving as a mentor for a new lawyer.

Almost every local and state bar association has a mentor program. Sign up to be a mentor. In exchange for providing substantive legal advice, ask a new lawyer to provide you with advice regarding what technology is available.

Poll other lawyers regarding the technology they have adopted.

Lawyers love to talk about what they have learned. Ask every lawyer you see at the courthouse or at T-ball what they have done with technology in their office. You are likely to find someone who has already evaluated all the document management systems out there and is willing to tell you what they learned. There is no doubt that the number of providers available is overwhelming. Why reinvent the wheel when someone has already done the legwork for you?

Read Law Practice magazine.

LP’s Law Practice magazine is published every other month. It is filled with helpful articles and columns for practitioners in firms of every size. You can find advice for how to more efficiently run a solo practice and how to manage a large firm. You will find advice from virtual lawyers. Look to see who is writing about technology in the practice of law and see if they have a blog you can follow.

Explore the myriad free apps already available.

Purchasing project management software can be an expensive proposition. And making the wrong purchase can set you back financially. While you are looking for the right system, consider using one of the free apps available. I have recently started experimenting with Microsoft To Do. This program allows me to create a list of projects for each case, assign those tasks, and keep up with which lawyer I assigned the project to and when those tasks are completed. I suspect I will ultimately graduate to a full project management system, but it is a step in the right direction.

Make a small change this month. If you do nothing more than ask a peer what the most valuable piece of technology they are using is, that is forward movement.

Heidi A. Barcus

Partner

Heidi A. Barcus is a partner with London Amburn, P.C. in Knoxville, Tennessee. She is a past president of the Knoxville Bar Association and certified by the American Board of Professional Liability Attorneys.