For roughly the past two decades, the 2016 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report has queried lawyers about the legal technology training options available to them.
The good news is that, generally, most lawyers report having access to technology training resources. However, the not-as-good news is that a deeper dive into the numbers shows wide discrepancies in this reported availability between larger firms and solo/small firms—which makes the overall numbers look better than they are. However, much of this inaccessibility to technology training may be a misperception on the part of the respondents.
Competence and Technology Training
In 2012, the ABA formally approved a change to Rule 1.1 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, making it clear that one measure of a lawyer’s competence is tied to knowledge about technology related to their practice.
The change came in an amendment to Comment 8 in Model Rule 1.1. It now reads as follows:
Maintaining Competence To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology, engage in continuing study and education and comply with all continuing legal education requirements to which the lawyer is subject.
As of this writing, nearly half of the states have adopted this comment (either verbatim or with local changes) as part of their Rules of Professional Conduct. They are:
- New Hampshire
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- West Virginia
While some critics have accused the ABA of drafting a comment that “might as well say water is wet,” knowing what resources are available and how they can be put to use to effectively represent your client is clearly not that obvious to everyone.
When lawyers were asked, as part of the 2016 Survey, if they are “required to stay abreast of the benefits and risks of technology as part of their basic competency requirement under your jurisdiction’s enactment of the rules of professional conduct,” nearly half of the respondents either said “no” (25.5%) or “don’t know” (22.1%). Lawyers cannot ignore this new focus on technology aptitude. Even states that have not yet adopted this new comment are recognizing that technology training is an important part of a lawyer’s ability to effectively and competently represent their clients. Many of those states that have not yet adopted this new comment have begun to grant ethics credits for technology-related in-person and webinar CLE courses.
Lawyers can no longer claim ignorance of technology as a defense for not knowing or not doing something the court or the bar believe they should have known or done.
Most (But Not All) Lawyers Are Getting the Message
Respondents generally agree that it’s important to be trained on the firm’s technology. 81.4% of respondents indicated that it’s “very important” or “somewhat important” to get training (43.4% responding “very important,” 38% responding “somewhat important”).
It is troubling, however, that 18.9% of respondents still believe this training is “not very important” or “not at all important” (14.5% responding “not very important,” 4.1% responding “not at all important”).
The very people likely to opt out of this training are the ones who would get the most out of it. Respondents from firms of 2-9 attorneys were most likely to respond that this training was “not very important” (21.1%). Solo attorneys were most likely to respond that this training was “not at all important” (7.2%). The good news here is that the 7.2% of solos who responded that this training was “not at all important” is down considerably from the 12% who responded similarly in 2015.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: technology training is important for everyone. This is especially true for the solo or small firm attorney, for whom technology in general, and software in particular, can increase their productivity and help them compete with larger firms that have more human resources.
The 2016 Survey did not ask respondents why they might believe technology training is not important, but we can imagine them falling into at least two categories: those who don’t use technology, and those who are already proficient in the use of the technology.
Self-assessment of one’s skills is notoriously inaccurate. In studies, social psychology researchers have found that, generally, people have a tendency to overrate their abilities and that “the least competent performers inflate their abilities the most; that the reason for the over-inflation seems to be ignorance, not arrogance; and that chronic self-beliefs, however inaccurate, underlie both people’s over and under-estimations of how well they’re doing.” In short, people don’t know what they don’t know, and therefore think they know more than they do.
Some level of training would even benefit attorneys not using the software directly. This training would familiarize them with the software’s capabilities so that these non-users could understand what those attorneys and staff who do use it are capable of producing. A lawyer who has some idea of what the firm’s case management software can produce will make much more realistic requests to their direct reports than a lawyer who thinks any request for information is possible because “it’s on the computer.”
Availability of Training Appears Encouraging Until You Dig Deeper
The 2016 Survey results indicate that law firms of all sizes are training their people to use the firms’ technologies.
At first glance, the prevalence of training at law firms might appear encouraging. 70.5% of all respondents report some type of training available at their firms. However, disparities between the higher instances of training reported as being available to respondents from large firms versus the lower instances available to respondents who are small firm practitioners or in solo practice makes that overall average look better than it is.
Digging deeper into the numbers, we can see that the 70.5% average belies the fact that only 54.3% of solos and 64.7% of respondents from firms of 2-9 reported having “one or more” training options available to them. Going up the scale of firm size, the prevalence of training increases, as 81.1% of those from firms of 10-49, 96.4% from firms of 50-99, 98.3% from firms of 100-499, and 100% from firms of 500+ attorneys responded that they had “one or more” training options available.
Types of Training Available
Interestingly, respondents at firms of all sizes are turning to technology-based options for their technology training.
Overall, the most prevalent form of training available, on average, was reported to be “web-based classes offered by vendors/manufacturers” (40.3%).
- 32.3% of solos
- 43.0% of those from firms of 2-9
- 44.7% of those from firms of 10-49
- 42.9% from firms of 50-99
- 44.8% from firms of 100-499
- 44.4% from firms of 500+
The second most prevalent form of training available, on average, was reported to be “tutorials included with software programs” (34.1%).
- 32.7% of solos
- 36.5% of those from firms of 2-9
- 32.6% of those from firms of 10-49
- 25.0% from firms of 50-99
- 34.5% from firms of 100-499
- 37.8% from firms of 500+
The most prevalent form of training among larger-firm respondents was “live classes offered by in-house staff:”
- 91.1% from firms of 500+
- 86.2% from firms of 100-499
- 82.1% from firms of 50-99
It’s no surprise that these “live classes offered by in-house staff” numbers fall precipitously when we get to the smaller firms and solos:
- 34.8% of those from firms of 10-49
- 6.8% of those from firms of 2-9
- 1.3% of solos
On the strength of their availability to larger-firm respondents, “live classes offered by in-house staff” ranked as the fourth most-available training method overall (24.5%), when only one of the categories (firms of 10-49 attorneys) is anywhere close to that 24.5% average.
When comparing responses from prior years, the bigger firms also appear to have increased the availability of these “live classes offered by in-house staff.” In 2013 only 83.6% of firms of 500+ attorneys, 83.6% from firms of 100-499, and 59.5% of firms of 50-99 reported having access to this type of training.
Types of Training Deemed “Most Effective”
Those respondents who indicated that training was available were also asked to identify the training methods that were “most effective.” Some of their responses are enlightening and could be especially instructive to those respondents who indicated that training was not available to them.
The highest percentage (23.6%) of respondents reported that live classes offered by in-house staff have been the most effective training method. Larger firms have an advantage here since larger firms are more likely to be able to offer these classes, so their responses skewed the average response for this question. The 69.8% of respondents at firms of 500+ and the 63.2% of respondents from firms of 100-499 attorneys skew the average to the high side, as only 20% of respondents from firms of 10-49, 9% of respondents from firms of 2-9 attorneys, and 2.5% of responding solos reported this as an effective training method.
Obviously, not every firm has the luxury of in-house experts or trainers. Small firm and solo practitioner respondents were more likely to find other sources—those more available to them—more effective.
The next most effective training method(s) reported by all respondents were “web-based classes offered by vendors/manufacturers” and “live classes offered by vendors/manufacturers,” which tied at 18.4%. Respondents from firms of 2-9 attorneys found these two methods effective in even higher percentages than this average.
“Web-based classes offered by vendors/manufacturers” were ranked first among solo practitioners (22.9%, compared with 22% in 2015, 32% in 2014, and 28% in 2013). This method of training was also ranked first among firms of 2-9 attorneys (26.3%, compared with 20% in 2015, 21% in 2014, and 26% in 2013) as the most effective technology training.
“Tutorials included with software programs” were ranked the second most effective technology training by solo practitioners (22%). Other categories of respondents also found this to be an effective method, though it was not ranked as highly by them. Respondents at firms of 2-9 attorneys reported this to be the sixth most effective method (7.7%). This marks a drop in ranking from the 2015 Survey, when it ranked third most effective among this group (13%).
Availability of Training Shouldn’t Be Determined by Firm Size
A natural assumption might be that as firms grow in size, they are better able to provide what is thought to be expensive training for their attorneys. And while this is true, in part, many solo and smaller-firm respondents have shown that they are able to get some of the training they need from smaller-budget, or free, resources.
Generally, the “web-based classes offered by vendors/manufacturers” and “tutorials included with software programs” are available to attorneys at no cost or low-cost. For whatever reason, the 45.7% of solos and 35.3% from firms of 2-9 who responded that there is “no training” available to them are not taking advantage of these resources.
Why Aren’t Solo and Small Firm Lawyers Finding Training?
While it’s possible that some of those respondents who reported “no training” available at their firms might not be using technology in their practices, it’s more likely that if they are seeking training they are doing so ineffectively. (It is also possible that some respondents understood this question to be asking whether their firm offered a formal training program. Since most solos or small firms would not have a formal training program, it is possible that these respondents might have responded “no” even if they were seeking out some of these training options on their own.)
In a (marginally) related question, respondents were asked about the resources they “regularly use to obtain information about legal technology.” It would be logical to assume that they also consult these same sources for information about using, or training on, this technology with roughly the same regularity.
Respondents’ second most popular source for information “about legal technology” was “search engines” (41.4%), with solos and smaller firms above that average (48.4% of solos and 42.5% of firms of 2-9). If they are searching for, but not
Simple keyword searches for “training” and “software name” might return links to expensive third-party training options that crowd out whatever free or low-cost options that are available. A search for “training,” “webinar,” or “tutorial” limited to the website of the technology’s manufacturer might prove more effective.
Technology Training From Other Sources
In two other (marginally) related questions, respondents were asked about factors that were “influential” in their decisions to buy technology. More than three-quarters responded that “expert reviews” were “very influential” or “somewhat influential” (23% “very influential,” 56.5% “somewhat influential”) and more than two-thirds responded that “educational conferences/CLEs” were “very influential” or “somewhat influential” (15.2% “very influential,” 54.8% “somewhat influential”).
Hopefully, lawyers will continue to look to these sources when they need training on the technology they use. Many bar associations and independent CLE providers offer lawyers practical, expert-led webinar and on-demand video training to become more adept using the features and functions of specific technology. Lawyers should look for options where they can directly ask the presenters for help with issues they might face.
There is no question that lawyers must be trained to use the technologies they employ in their practices—and to keep abreast of new technologies they should be employing—if those technologies might impact their handling of a client matter. It is no longer just a matter of practicality; it is also a matter of competence.
Thankfully, the results of the 2016 Survey compared to previous years’ responses indicate that most lawyers are recognizing the importance of training. While larger-firm respondents appear to be more aware of the training options available to them, many solo/small firm respondents appear to incorrectly believe that various forms of training are not available to them… when they are, and at low-cost or for free.