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Lawyer as Word Processor

First in a two-part series on the Suffolk/Flaherty Legal Tech Audit. In this post, Dan Lear argues the validity of testing lawyers on their word processing skills over, or instead of, “soft” skills for business. Look for a response from Casey Flaherty, creator of the Legal Tech Audit, tomorrow.

In the year between undergrad and law school, I worked at the Seattle office of the law firm Perkins Coie as a records manager. I was impressed by how adroitly a word processor in our group manipulated Microsoft Office. With keystrokes alone she could rapidly locate a document in the “Documents” folder on her hard drive, open it, search it, change it, and close it. Her fingers never touched the mouse—she may not have even had one.

Not long ago I completed the Suffolk/Flaherty Legal Tech Assessment. The audit is a “test” developed by Casey Flaherty when he worked in-house at Kia Motors to evaluate the competence of his outside counsel with Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Adobe Acrobat. (Flaherty is now running his own shop, Cost Control, dedicated to helping “corporate legal departments eliminate waste and unnecessary spending.”)

Now, I’m a relatively techno-proficient lawyer who worked both in the Microsoft legal department and as outside counsel for Microsoft, including on projects related to Microsoft Office. I won’t go into my “score” here but suffice it to say that I would have been really embarrassed to show my results to a paying client.

But beyond finances, the audit raises a bigger question for me: do we want lawyers improving their competence with these technologies? Do we really want to turn them into glorified word processors like those I worked with at Perkins Coie? And what are we willing to sacrifice in the list of things we think lawyers should be learning to train them on Microsoft Office?

I appreciate the point the audit is making: lawyers’ skills with Word, Excel, and Acrobat are abysmal. The audit provides clients with important insight to the lawyer’s ability to complete a project in a timely and cost-effective manner.

But if the audit’s desired outcome is improving lawyers’ Word, Excel, and Acrobat manipulation skills, I pause. We already have outsourced transcription, eDiscovery, and reception services, among many others. If a firm or an attorney doesn’t have access to local word processors like at Perkins Coie, certainly there exists—or soon will exist—an outsourced or online resource that can do that work. Expert manipulation of these technologies seems like exactly the kind of thing that lawyers should be happy to pass off or otherwise outsource in order to focus on “higher level” activities that make better use of their costly training.

Let’s not forget that everything we teach lawyers has to displace something else. In various venues, and to various audiences, I’ve pushed teaching lawyers business skills, empathy, emotional intelligence, coding, marketing, social media, and a host of other things.

And, just as I’ve argued for a broader legal curriculum, others have suggested their own worthy topics for study too. Among current and proposed curriculum what gets removed so it can be replaced by a tutorial on Word?

The point is this: skill with Word, Excel, and Adobe Acrobat is important but, in the grand scheme of things, is it at the core of what a lawyer is and will be in the future? I’m not sure that it is.

To be clear, this is not a slam on the Suffolk/Flaherty Legal Tech Audit. The audit has been incredibly valuable on a number of fronts, the least but most prominent of which may be striking fear in the hearts of lawyers that clients will soon measure their value and their bill partially on the basis of their technical competence.

But where is the audit pushing the profession? If it jolts formerly techno-phobic lawyers to more readily and willingly embrace technology, then it’s a success. On the other hand, if the goal is to improve lawyers’ skills with Word, making them glorified—not to mention expensive—word processors, then we should set our sights a bit higher.

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