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.

About Dan Lear

Dan Lear
As Director of Industry Relations at Avvo, Dan manages relationships with the legal industry (law schools, legal tech companies, bar and industry associations). He is a technology lawyer, facilitator, and blogger. He is the cofounder of the Seattle Legal Technology and Innovation MeetUp, a self-styled "legal hacking" group that meets regularly to explore, identify, and implement unconventional solutions to law's problems, big and small. He's also blogged and written extensively about the profession and its evolution on his blog Right Brain Law and for other online and print publications. In his six years as a practicing attorney and more than ten years in the legal industry, Dan worked for two lean "NewLaw" law firms, designed and implemented an online program for procurement contract processing, and was a part of early international legal outsourcing efforts with a Fortune 500 company. He received his BA in International Studies from Brigham Young University, and his JD and MBA from Seattle University. Dan is admitted to the bar in Washington. He is also a frequent speaker and writer on legal technology trends and innovations.

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  • MLSandler

    No one wants attorneys to “become word processors”. The end goal of the audit is to guarantee that attorneys know things like how to update their TOC with a simple right-click because it’s 2 AM and their assistant left the office hours ago; like the ability to convert their 157 page document was built into Word (and Excel and PowerPoint) three versions ago and they don’t need to waste time printing the document onto paper and having someone walk it over to a scanner to create that PDF; they should know how and why to use Styles so it takes 2.5 minutes to make corrections to a document instead of 2.5 HOURS – for anyone, especially their assistant who now supports 4-6 other professionals as well as the one attorney in question. The attorneys who’ve come out of law school in the last 5-10 years already do most of their own typing. They just need to learn to fine tune it.

    • Law Technology Today

      Hi! We’d love to have you contribute an article of your own to Law Technology Today regarding this or any other topic you’d like to discuss. If you’re interested please contact Cal.Bates@americanbar.org

  • buzzbruggeman

    God forbid that lawyers shift their attention from billing time to being more efficient and hence more productive that would benefit their clients. Most lawyers/law firms would benefit from site licenses of “Mavis Bacon Teaches Typing”. There is no incentive for lawyers or firms that bill by the hour to be more productive. Everything in life is an anecdote, but have practiced law for a long time, and pitching ActiveWords to endless law firms and lawyers, I’m living proof of what I have written above.

    Hard not to be cynical of your take. Lawyers only become glorified word processors when the choose to bill their clients for their ineptness. When they bite the bullet, suck it up, recognize their failings, and set out to deliver great product at reduced costs, the world and the legal community will be a better place.

    • Law Technology Today

      We’d love to have you contribute an article of your own to Law Technology Today regarding this or any other topic you’d like to discuss. If you’re interested please contact Cal.Bates@americanbar.org Hope to hear from you soon!

  • Jenn Steele

    I’m a little confused as to why you think that training is a zero-sum game. Lawyers are typing documents. That’s a fact. They’re typing more and more of them. How is training more efficiency into that process displacing something else?

    • Law Technology Today

      We’d love to have you contribute an article of your own to Law Technology Today regarding this or any other topic you’d like to discuss. If you’re interested please contact Cal.Bates@americanbar.org

  • To be honest, the real question I have is why the legal industry conflates “legal work” with “making electronic documents that still look like pieces of paper.” Almost all of the content we now consume – news, shopping, social media – is dynamic and accessible across multiple platforms. There are no page numbers. There are just links.

    Yet when lawyers draft a contract or write a brief, suddenly they become typesetters and must be concerned with how the document “looks” as a piece of paper – a zero-value activity. The resulting products – Word and PDFs – are among the worst document types to handle from a search and re-usability perspective.

    While we should always be concerned about efficiency in the short term, the industry as a whole needs to begin thinking about how to adopt solutions that break out of this paper-oriented paradigm. Lots of good solutions in Markdown, LaTeX, and others, are available to be adapted into legal workflows.

    • Law Technology Today

      These are very great points Dan! We’d love to have you contribute an article of your own to Law Technology Today regarding this or any other topic you’d like to discuss. If you’re interested please contact Cal.Bates@americanbar.org

    • james0802

      Most of us are unfortunately bound by rules of procedure, which to a large extent are stil moribund in the paper paradigm.