For roughly the past two decades, the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center has polled lawyers for their opinions about the legal technology options available to them in its annual Legal Technology Survey Report. One of the areas it investigates is access to and attitudes toward training for lawyers’ practice technology.
Overall, the state of adoption, comfort, and facility with technology tools in the legal industry is good; the 2019 Survey responses offer some insight into areas where improvement can still be made.
While a solid majority of respondents to the 2019 Survey (86%) reported being “very comfortable” or “somewhat comfortable” with their firm’s technology. This represents a small drop from 2018 levels (88%).
Solo and small firm attorneys were most likely to report being “very comfortable” with their firm’s technology (62% and 61%, respectively). The results show a large gap in comfort between these smaller-firm attorneys and their counterparts at larger firms. This is especially true with attorneys at firms of 100-499, where only 30% of respondents indicated that they were “very comfortable” with their firm’s technology. Attorneys at firms of 500+ were only 47% likely to respond that they were “very comfortable.”
Overall, there was virtually no change in the overall percentage of respondents indicating technology training is available at their firm; however, this still represents the thinnest of majorities (60% in 2019 vs. 57% in 2018). These responses show a marked decline from 74% of respondents who responded affirmatively in 2017, 71% in 2016, and 67% in 2015.
The “comfort gap” with technology between larger and smaller firm respondents, however, is particularly troubling. Digging deeper into the responses shows that the largest firms are most likely to offer training on the technology they employ. Nearly all (97%) of these respondents from firms of 500+ and 95% of respondents from firms of 100-499 indicated that they had technology training available at their firms. It is unclear whether this relative lack of comfort is due to lawyers just not availing themselves of that training, ineffective training, or that lawyers who do take advantage of training might recognize how much more they need to learn to be proficient with their technology.
Counter-intuitively, it should be noted that the solo and small firm respondents—who reported being the most comfortable with their technology—were the least likely to report having “technology training of any kind available” at their firm.
Should Lawyers Even Bother?
Attorneys are generally more likely (than in previous years) to answer in the affirmative when asked whether they were “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?” In the 2019 Survey, 64% of respondents indicated that they were.
This closely mirrors the ABA’s 2012 adoption of Comment 8 to Rule 1.1 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct that states:
“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.”
Over the course of the ensuing six years, 34 states (68%) have adopted some form of this rule as part of their Rules of Professional Conduct.
Respondents from firms of 100+ are most likely to report that they are required to stay abreast of the benefits and risks of technology (68%, compared with 61% in 2018, 62% in 2017, and 44% in 2016).
Similarly, solo respondents answering in the affirmative increased to 67% (compared with 65% in 2018, 64% in 2017, and 60% in 2016); respondents from firms of 2-9 attorneys were close behind (64%, compared with 64% in 2018), and 56% of respondents of 10-49 attorneys also indicated that this was a basic competency (compared with 50% in 2018).
It is troubling, however, that 18% of all respondents indicated that they “don’t know” the answer to this question.
Not Everyone Agrees on the Importance of Technology Training
While not everyone agrees on the importance of technology training, more lawyers are seeing the importance. Overall, 82% of respondents indicated it was “very important” or “somewhat important” to receive training on their firm’s technology.
It is somewhat troubling, however, to see that respondents to the 2019 Survey from smaller firms (either solo or firms of 2-9 attorneys) were less likely than average to respond that it was “very important” to receive training on their firm’s technology (45% and 42%, respectively, vs. 47% of overall respondents). This does represent an improvement, however, from 2018, when 40% of solos selected this response (44% of all 2018 respondents said training was “very important”).
Equally troubling is that solo respondents were also more likely to respond that it was “not very important” or “not at all important” to receive training on their firms’ technology than respondents overall (12% and 3%, respectively, vs. 8% and 2% of overall respondents, respectively).
It’s not only troubling that solos reported a more negative attitude than the average toward the necessity of training (3% of solo respondents found this training to be “not very important”), but that these opinions mark a continued deterioration in solo attorneys’ attitudes toward technology training. In 2018, 7% of solo respondents found this training to be “not at all important”; while in 2017 only 6% of solo respondents reporting feeling that way.
Interestingly, no respondents in the middle range of firm sizes (10-49 attorneys, 50-99 attorneys) or the largest firms (500+) indicated that this training was “not at all important.”
But Lawyers are Interested in Learning About Technology?
Attorneys are open to learning about technology—and it’s not just limited to the technology they use in their practices every day. Emerging technologies like blockchain and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are also catching lawyers’ attention.
Overall, 64% of respondents expressed a favorable view of the importance of receiving training on these technologies. (This is down from 69% of respondents who responded similarly in 2018.) However, solo attorneys were most likely to view this training as “not at all important” (9% versus the overall average response of 5%).
Who Is Getting Training
Overall, the 2019 Survey results indicate that a little more than half of the respondents (60%) have any kind of technology training available.
This is relatively unchanged from 2018 (57%) but marks a significant drop from earlier years (74% in 2017 and 71% in 2016). Even this disappointing result is deceivingly positive, however.
Larger firms, with their greater availability of training, are skewing the overall average to appear better than it actually is.
As low as that overall response may seem, the news is even worse for solo attorneys. Solos are less than half as likely to report having training available (28%) than the overall average (60%).
It should come as no surprise that the likelihood of training increases with firm size. Respondents from the largest firms (500+ attorneys) reported the highest percentage of technology training availability (97%). Responses to the availability of technology training broke out as follows:
- Overall: 60% reported “yes,” 39% reported “no,” and 2% reported “don't know”
- Solo: 28% “yes,” 71% “no,” 1% “don’t know”
- 2-9: 49% “yes,” 49% “no,” 1% “don’t know”
- 10-49: 82% “yes,” 13% “no,” 5% “don’t know”
- 50-99: 90% “yes,” 7% “no,” 3% “don’t know”
- 100-499: 95% “yes,” 5% “no,” 0% “don’t know”
- 500+: 97% “yes,” 2% “no,” 2% “don’t know”
Despite their responses, training is probably actually already available to those solo and small firm respondents who want it—we’ll discuss some of those sources that are likely already available to them later in this article.
Does Increased Technology Training Lead to Fewer Technology Headaches?
When asked, “How often do technology-related problems negatively impact your productivity?” 52% of all respondents responded “often” (7%) or “sometimes” (45%). Surprisingly, solo respondents were less likely than average (only 3% “often” and 36% “sometimes”) to suffer negative impacts from technology problems. These responses also show an improvement for Solo respondents from the 2018 Survey when 6% responded “often” and 43% “sometimes.”
Respondents from largest firms (in all categories from 10-49 attorneys to 500+ attorneys) were most likely to report that they suffered negative impacts from technology problems “sometimes.”
Does this mean that larger firm attorneys are running into more problems or does it mean that their problems “negatively affect [their] productivity” more than their smaller-firm counterparts? Is it possible that the larger firm attorneys are more frustrated because they know (or think they know) that they should be able to solve the problem based on some long-ago training?
Or, conversely, are solo and small firm respondents not as frustrated, because, having never received training, they do not attempt to use some advanced features or functions? Therefore, not leading to as many “technology issues?”
Who Is Solving These Technology Problems?
Overall, respondents indicated that they were most likely to turn to “internal technical support staff” (40%), “consultants” (28%), or “Google or other search engines” (12%) when they have a problem with their firm’s technology.
Not surprisingly, the likelihood of reliance on “internal technical support staff” is related to firm size—with larger firms generally reporting a higher likelihood of this being their first option. Similarly, the more likely a group of respondents was to report that “internal technical support staff” was their first option, the less likely they were to report a “consultant” as their first option.
It is also notable that solo respondents were more than twice as likely to select “Google or other search engines” as their first choice to solve these problems as the overall average (24% for solos vs. 12% for all respondents).
Why Might Those Reporting the Access to Least Training Also Report the Most Comfort?
The 2019 Survey does not offer a way to know where the increased level of “comfort” in smaller firm respondents comes from. It could be that they are genuinely just more adept at using the technology in their firms and therefore are more comfortable. However, the fact that they also report significantly lower rates of access to training for their technology would not support that reason.
A more likely reason could be that those solo and small firm attorneys—like the general population—tend to inflate their abilities (in any area) when asked to assess themselves. In socio-psychological circles, this over-estimation of one’s own abilities is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
In their research, social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University identified people’s general tendency to, “fail to adequately assess their level of competence—or specifically, their incompetence—at a task and thus consider themselves much more competent than everyone else.” Generally, their research found:
- “the least competent performers inflate their abilities the most
- that the reason for the over-inflation seems to be ignorance, not arrogance;
- that chronic self-beliefs, however inaccurate, underlie both people’s over and under-estimations of how well they’re doing.”
More succinctly, people don’t know what they don’t know, and therefore think they know more than they do.
Could it be that “Comfort Gap” exhibited by solo and small firm attorneys comes from their overestimation of their abilities using technology at work—because they do not have access to training and therefore don’t know what they don’t know? Conversely, could it also be that larger firm attorneys, who do have access to training, realize how much more there would be to learn to become proficient with their technology and therefore have a lower perception of their “comfort” using their technology?
The 2019 Survey structure does not give us a way to know the answer to those questions—but extrapolating from the general population it is highly likely.
Where Are Attorneys Learning About Technology In The First Place?
As a follow-up to respondents who indicated that training was available at their firms, the 2019 Survey also asked, “Where do you turn first when you need or want to learn about technology?” Overall, the highest percentage of respondents (32%) indicated their IT departments were the first place they would turn.
This is a significant reduction from the percentage who responded similarly in 2018 (43%). Nearly half of that almost 12 point reduction was gained by “Google or other search” (increasing from 24% in 2018 to 30% in 2019). All other responses saw slim increases year-over-year including “peers” (9% in 2018 to 11% in 2019), “books/magazines” (3% in 2018 to 4% in 2019), and “bar associations” (4% in 2018 to 5% in 2019).
Notably, with the exception of “IT,” the prevalence of relying on any particular source decreases as the size of the respondents’ firm increases. Since solo attorneys or smaller firms are less likely to have in-house IT departments this is no surprise.
It is important to note that solo and small firm respondents were significantly more likely than the average to indicate “Google or other search” as the first place they turn to learn about technology (37% of solo respondents, 32% of respondents from firms of 2-9 attorneys responded this way). This is important for two reasons:
- First, it is important to note that solo and small firm attorneys seem to “trust” “Google and other search” results for initial information more than any other source
- Second, it is important to note because these responses indicate an increase in that trust since the 2018 Survey when 33% of solo respondents, 30% of respondents from firms of 2-9 attorneys responded this way
Training is Out There—If Lawyers Know Where to Look For It
A large majority of solo respondents (71%) and a high percentage of respondents from firms of 2-9 attorneys (49%) indicated that they have no technology training at their firms.
This is to be expected since solo attorneys and smaller firms do not generally have the infrastructure of a training or professional development department. Taking a broader view of what it means to have “technology training of any kind available at your firm,” however, might affect those responses. For example, many software vendors offer tutorials and other training videos for their products online. Additionally, many trustworthy third-parties (like consultants) post informative “how-to” videos freely available online.
It is possible that some of those respondents who reported “no training” available at their firms may be taking a very literal view of the question and responding to “what is available at their firm.” However, others may just not be aware of or may not be finding these outside training opportunities, because:
- They might not be using technology in their practices at all and are not looking for training
- They may have overestimated their skills using the technology (Dunning-Kruger effect) and are not looking for training
- They may be searching for training videos (or other resources) online but not finding them
Remember, however, that 37% of solo respondents who indicated that they did have training available at their firms also indicated that “Google or other search” was the first place they turn for information about technology. As for not having training available, assuming that a similar percentage (of 37%) applies to all solo respondents who might turn to Google or other search (to look at just one category), it is confounding to see that 71% of solo attorneys responded that they did not have training available. It is, therefore, more likely that those attorneys are seeking training online, but are doing so ineffectively (by using “Google or other search”).
So then, if these lawyers are looking for training via “Google or other search,” why aren’t they finding these sources? It could be that their self-assessment of their own search skills leads them to conduct ineffective search engine searches that do not produce useful results.
In many cases, the results of a search engine search for “training” and “software name” might return numerous links to paid or advertised third-party training options that crowd out the free or low-cost, vendor-supplied resources that are available. A search for “training,” “webinar,” or “tutorial” limited to the website of the technology’s manufacturer might prove more effective.
For more general (non-law-specific) software, attorneys might want to try the tutorials available from Lynda.com. The site offers thousands of video tutorials and practice exercises for various software, including Microsoft’s Word, Excel, and Powerpoint; Wordperfect; Quickbooks; and others. Subscriptions begin at $19.99 per month. Many public libraries, however, offer their patrons free remote access to the entire library of Lynda.com’s educational materials, so lawyers should check their local library’s website to see if they already have access to this resource.
Technology training for lawyers is important. The good news is that, overall, a majority of lawyers (82%) agree, responding that getting trained on the technology they are using in their firms is “very important” or “somewhat important.”
The bad news is that fewer attorneys (than in past Surveys) are reporting having access to technology training at their firms. The 2019 Survey makes it clear that the larger a firm, the more likely respondents were to indicate that technology training is available to them. This is a trend seen in previous Surveys.
We are long past the time when it can be reasonably argued that a lawyer can provide efficient representation to their clients without utilizing technology tools. That is not to say that using technology in the practice of law does not come with its own difficulties that can affect a lawyer’s productivity. Many of those difficulties, however, can be minimized through adequate training.
Technology is not just useful in providing effective representation to clients; in more and more states, familiarity with “the risks and benefits associated with technology” is one of the measures of lawyer competence (based on the recent[ish] adoption of a new Comment 8 to the ABA’s Model Rule 1.1). In the 34 states that have adopted some form of this new Rule, claiming ignorance of a particular technology for not implementing it—or implementing it incorrectly—is not a defense and will not protect lawyers from a potential ethics violation.
Overall, however, barely more than half of the attorney respondents to the 2019 Survey report having technology training available at their firms. Those who could probably benefit the most from using technology more effectively in their practices—solo and small firm attorneys (those in firms of 2-9)—are even less likely than the average to report having training available (28% and 49%, respectively).
This lower than average availability of technology training at these smaller-sized firms is confounding when you consider that 72% of solos and 82% of respondents from firms of 2-9 indicated that it was “very important” or “somewhat important” to receive technology training.
The 2019 Survey’s structure does not allow us to discern if these solo lawyers who report no technology training at their firms are not seeking out training or are just not finding training if they are seeking it out.
The fact that 88% of solo respondents indicate that they are “very comfortable” or “somewhat comfortable” “using [their] firm’s available technology” may give us an indicator that these respondents are overestimating their abilities with the technology and underestimating their need for training.
Is it possible that those respondents indicating that they do not have technology training at their firms (39% of all respondents; 71% of solos) are not using technology at all or using very little?
For those attorneys who may not be using technology in their practice, we recommend they go outside their comfort zone and attend technology conferences to learn what’s out there that would help them practice more efficiently. These non-technology using attorneys will hopefully gain insight at those conferences and will explore what technology they need to practice more efficiently (and competently) and then obtain the necessary training.
Lawyers must also learn to overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect that is likely coloring their own (mis-)perceptions about their technology competence to understand that training would benefit them. Once they do, they will hopefully seek out educational resources that are already available to them. Many of these resources can be located by conducting more effective Internet searches.
Solos and small firm lawyers shouldn’t feel shut out of training despite their lack of an IT department and a big training budget. There’s so much free and low-cost technology training available from vendors and manufacturers, bar associations, CLE organizations, and other sources online. The 2019 Survey results, however, tell us that many solos and small firm lawyers appear to not be taking advantage of this free and low-cost training—even though much of it is just a simple web search away.