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December 12, 2018 Article

Opinion: Technology in Practice Can Do More Harm Than Good

By Julie Rising Bryan

In the past 20 years, pagers, faxes, and Dictaphones have become obsolete, and smartphones, email, and laptops are found in virtually every briefcase and bag in the legal profession. Settlement agreements can be typed up and printed on the spot at a mediation, and courts receive emergency motions filed electronically or by email. Lightning-fast technological developments have reshaped the way we practice law and manage our everyday lives.

We are bombarded with offers for new apps, new software, and new gadgets that claim to make our lives easier, make our practice more efficient, and free us from administrative tasks that detract from the substantive legal work that drives our revenue stream. The ease of access to email, billing software, portable computers, and cell phones means we are able to work 24 hours a day from home, restaurants, or a beach chair.

The obvious problem this has created is that clients and colleagues expect you to pay constant attention to all of your cases and give immediate responses to phone calls and emails. The technological advancements of the past 20 years have cultivated a need for instant gratification, such that quick action has, in some circumstances, become more important than quality work. We must, as legal practitioners who seek to serve our clients and the courts with integrity and excellence, stem the tide of the desire for legal work that provides the same immediate satisfaction as ordering from Amazon.

Faster is not always better, and the availability of shortcuts through technology can lead to less independent thinking about the particular client, the unique facts driving a case, and the strategies that need to be considered when creating each letter, complaint, brief, or email. Many documents are formed by cutting and pasting, rather than original drafting, giving no opportunity to think critically about the words on the page. Online legal research allows for clicking links, copying citations directly into briefs, and instant cite checking, abbreviating the process in a dangerous way. When legal research required flipping pages in libraries, reviewing treatises, and searching for precedent in books rather than links, it was necessary to read entire cases to find the critical holding or citation. Now, the ease of finding sound bites through search terms risks using authorities that are not as persuasive or, worse, do not stand for the point made by the drafter.

It is imperative that lawyers in this modern technological era find ways to manage response-time expectations and use technology in a balanced way to make sure efficiency does not outweigh quality. There are several ways to achieve this balance, the following among them:

  • Stop checking your email. Make it a habit that is known to colleagues and clients that you will not check emails after a certain time of night, and then don’t. Make sure you have a way for clients to get a hold of you in case of an emergency, but don’t do any regular business by email for a good 10–12 hours a day. If you must work, try to keep it solo work—drafting, editing, reading—but no active communication by email or phone. This is important for your clients’ expectations and for your own sanity.
  • Don’t buy every new gadget. Shiny new toys are attractive and many do, in fact, make life easier. But the newest tech or app often has glitches or hasn’t been used in practice very much. Do your research on the ones that are tried-and-true and don’t invest until you’ve heard glowing reviews from other attorneys you know personally.
  • Step away from your desk. Don’t let the constant emails and phone calls distract you from the work you need to get done. Take reading material to another location—a conference room, a library, or even a coffee shop. Give yourself some uninterrupted quiet time to focus on what you need to accomplish.
  • Go old school. Print documents you plan to cite and edit them long-hand. This will force you to slow down and read each line with more care than if you are just redlining the document on your computer screen.
  • Set limits. Make sure you are giving clients more realistic time frames for whatever deliverables you are providing. It may be cliché, but it is always better to under-promise and over-deliver, so tack on 10–20 percent of whatever your estimate is for a timeline. And make sure that your clients know you are not available when you are on vacation or on the weekend unless it is an emergency.

There are huge advantages to the technological revolution for our legal practices, including blazing efficiency and connection to a network of research, documents, and other attorneys that we never would have thought possible, even 20 years ago. But we must slow down in order to ensure that the quality of our profession doesn’t slip as we compete for clients with online legal services, automated form documents, and chat rooms offering free legal advice. Use the tools that make sense, but don’t get dragged down by clients and colleagues who expect instant responses merely because you can provide instant responses. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Julie Rising Bryan is an attorney with Casner & Edwards, LLP, in Boston Massachusetts.

Copyright © 2018, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).