Tech Competence: Knowing What Matters

In August of 2012, the ABA House of Delegates voted on a series of amendments to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct recommended by the Ethics 20/20 Commission. One of the most basic yet important changes came in the comments to Rule 1.1: Competence. As amended, the comment now states:

[6] 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.

The model language has already made its way to the states, with the most recent New Hampshire ethics opinion on cloud computing referencing the changes and stating that “competent lawyers must have a basic understanding of the technologies they use.”

While the argument that competency includes one’s understanding of technology is not new (legal technologists and ethicists have been suggesting as much for some time), the clear statement has led many lawyers to pause and reflect on their own understanding of technology — or the lack thereof.

Given the vastness of the subject, though, the question quickly becomes: Exactly what technology do lawyers need to understand? If a lawyer lacks a solid grounding in technology to begin with, how can he or she be expected to know which topics are important? How do lawyers interested in learning more about technology filter out the geek hype, vendor sales pitches and general misinformation to get to the real information?

Below are five simple strategies to help lawyers develop and maintain a basic understanding of relevant technology.

Relevancy, Not Hype

The topic that captures the most headlines and evening news appearances isn’t always the most important — and that’s certainly true with technology. With any given tech development, the “wow” factor often determines the attention it receives. That’s why you’re likely to see more coverage of Google Glass (a new augmented reality headset) than the latest data security breach, even though the security breach has considerably more importance to an active law firm. When scanning through the latest technology news, always ask yourself: Is this relevant to my practice? Or perhaps more directly: Can this technology help me be a better lawyer? In the end, your objective is to provide exceptional representation to your clients or employer, and the technology you’ll want to explore and understand is the technology that will help you achieve that goal.

Bookmark a Tech Site

We all have our Web surfing routines: news sites, Facebook, webmail accounts, sports sites, etc. Pick out a good technology blog or news site and mix it into your rotation. You don’t need to dedicate long hours to reading every article or news story that’s posted, but scanning the headlines regularly and reading an article here and there will help you stay in tune with the major trends and issues relating to technology. If a particular story or topic seems to meet the relevancy test discussed above, set aside a little bit of time to explore the topic further. A few sites to consider: Ars TechnicaZDNetThe VergeDavid Pogue,Wired.

Talk to Your Peers

Even if you consider yourself a true technophobe, chances are good that one of your lawyer friends or colleagues has an interest in the subject and is keeping relatively up-to-date. Engage your peers to share knowledge about the software, hardware and other technology tools they’re using in their practice. Peers are especially useful because, like you, they’re busy professionals with little interest in hyping useless products or wasting valuable time on gimmicks. Connect through email discussion lists, bar networking events, alumni meetings, and even simple conversations in the hallways outside the courtroom.

Talk to an Expert

We tend to think of technology consultants as people that solve specific tech problems: installing and configuring a new piece of software; setting up a new server; helping your firm upgrade to the latest version of Windows. Those are all valid uses for consultants, but there’s another valuable service most consultants are happy to offer: their thoughts, opinions and predictions. If you have a consultant you already turn to for tech support, consider buying an hour or two of his or her time to have a frank conversation about the trends, risks and opportunities he or she sees in the tech world. Set clear expectations: You’re not looking for a sales pitch on the latest gizmo the consultant can (for an additional fee) help you implement; you’re just looking for an expert to help bring you up to speed on the latest in the world in technology. A short conversation isn’t going to make you a tech expert, but it may help you understand the landscape and the specific technologies or issues you need to be considering in more depth.

Use Your Bar Association

Many associations, including the ABA, your state, local and specialty bar associations, and possibly even your mandatory licensing body, offer guidance on practice management issues, including the use of technology. This guidance is often no more than a few clicks or a phone call away, and it tends to be free of the vendor bias and breathless hype you may see elsewhere on the Web. It’s information written specifically for lawyers, in most cases by lawyers. Check with your state and local bars to see if you have a practice management adviser available to answer technology questions or who may be producing guides and content focused on practice technology in your jurisdiction. From the ABA, you can follow the work of the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center and the Law Technology Today blog, or visit a variety of resources related to technology from the ABA Law Practice Management Section, including ABA TECHSHOW.

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