Why Every State Should Require Technology CLEs

Two states now require a mandatory technology hour for continuing legal education credit, on top of ethics, substance abuse, and other annually or biannually required topics. The Southeast has led the charge in imposing this new requirement, with Florida requiring three technology credit hours every three years, and North Carolina following suit with a one-hour annual requirement. The technology CLE requirement will likely vary state by state as others adopt it, but it largely requires education in IT, cybersecurity, and various technology devices, platforms, tools, and methodologies applicable to practicing law.

With technology rapidly changing the legal landscape, no modern lawyer can afford to ignore it. As such, the technology CLE requirement is not gratuitous, but absolutely essential. Every U.S. state should require licensed attorneys to complete at least one hour of technology training per year in order to promote increased technological competence among lawyers. This should also not be a matter of checking a compliance box, but rather, should go beyond minimum competency to encourage proficiency.

The good news is that becoming conversant in technology is far easier than most lawyers think. For some attorneys, attaining basic technology competence can be as simple as using electronic calendaring to better manage their caseload and client communications, leveraging Outlook folders and safety features, or incorporating new legal technology platforms to automate basic processes like accessing legal data.

In this article, we’ll break down three overarching reasons as to why it is critical for all state bars to require technology CLEs to encourage an elevated level of competency among their members and improve the quality of legal services for consumers in their respective states.

Legal Ethics Mandates Technology Competency

The Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which almost all U.S. states and territories have adopted in some form, impose a basic duty of competence on practicing lawyers. Model Rule 1.1 states that “[a] lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”

In addition to the general duty outlined in Model Rule 1.1, a comment was added to clarify that lawyers’ duty of competence includes staying informed of technological developments affecting their practices. Comment 8 to the Model Rule notes that lawyers have a duty to “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.”

Technology is changing the way lawyers practice law. To continue operating at a basic level of competency, lawyers cannot afford to turn a blind eye to new advancements in technology and the responsiveness required in the digital age. In other words, if there are tools available to streamline routine tasks and introduce substantial efficiencies, thus cutting costs for clients and saving time for more arduous tasks like providing actual legal advice, then lawyers have a duty to understand what those tools are and how they can be utilized effectively.

Consider the advances being made in case research, a necessary task in most legal practices. Law practices have come a long way from the days of sending associates to comb through dusty volumes in law libraries or rifle through court records at a local courthouse. But even since case research first moved online, technology has transformed the ways that lawyers can access, process, and make use of legal information.

From receiving automatic notices about new case filings to integrating a research database with APIs for expediting case research, to leveraging litigation trends and legal analytics for business intelligence, there is an increasing number of legal tech tools available to lawyers.

Technology Helps Lawyers Deliver Better Legal Services

Expanding beyond the mandate of requiring technological competence, technology also offers tools that can help lawyers automate, outsource, or streamline tedious tasks like research, so they can focus more time on planning effective case strategies, engaging in pro bono work, or serving even more clients.

Most notably, certain technology platforms provide tools allowing for automated case searches for cases with certain pre-set criteria, as well as automatic notifications about new litigation in a relevant practice area. Lawyers working within small, mid-sized, or Big Law law firms can use these platforms to receive updates when cases are filed against clients within their major practice areas. These types of automation tools help lawyers stay closely updated on matters impacting their important clients without having to spend valuable time and money manually searching through multiple court databases.

Even simple practices like creating a suite of electronic templates for briefs and motions or integrating a CRM system to run conflict checks can save lawyers significant time and minimize rote, routine tasks. Reducing time spent on tedious, easily automated items means lawyers can focus on innovating their delivery model, dedicating more resources to business development efforts, and providing higher quality legal services to their clients.

Technology Helps Lawyers Differentiate and Thrive

In order to stand out in an increasingly competitive market and deliver superior legal services, attorneys need to (1) understand what tasks technology has largely automated, (2) grasp how technology is changing the legal landscape, and (3) recognize what aspects of legal services delivery that technology is not likely to outsource any time soon, such as complex legal advice and human innovation, creativity, and compassion.

In the Law Firms in Transition 2018 report, Altman Weil urges law firms to “pursue real differentiation” along with legal innovation. For lawyers, this is important not only for providing exceptional legal services to clients, but also for ensuring survival in an ever-competitive legal marketplace with a wide array of alternative legal services providers from Axiom, Atrium, and the Big Four to LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer.

Chief among the many ways in which law firms and lawyers can differentiate is developing a practice of unmatched responsiveness to clients. Building a client centered approach to delivering legal services means avoiding one of the most common client complaints surrounding timeliness of communications and keeping clients updated. However, critical to this differentiation is keeping a finger on the pulse of technological changes that affect the profession. Utilizing legal tech platforms to automate case updates and access to relevant information impacting client matters will position lawyers to not only be more responsive to their clients, but also to stay constantly abreast of legal and practical issues that may affect them.

Evolving and adapting requires moving with the forces molding an environment, and lawyers cannot adapt or innovate without an understanding of how technology is shaping the future outlook of their profession. In their article Adaptive Innovation: The Innovator’s Dilemma in Big Law, Dr. Ron Dolin and Thomas Buley highlight that, “Innovation forces a reexamination of core values – the changes are often in process, not product. Such examination emphasizes quality, expertise, data-driven decision-making, and efficiency.” They further note that innovation “addresses not only the efficient delivery of quality work but also the opening of new markets that would be inconceivable under inefficient delivery models.”

Innovation in the law is about more than just a tension between precedent and progress: it is about opening new opportunities and markets that prepare and position lawyers to deliver even better services to their clients.

Ushering in a New Era

Because technology is so dramatically changing the legal landscape, lawyers are facing new challenges, but also new opportunities. It is not only a part of a lawyer’s minimum duty of competency to remain conversant in technology, but it is also critical to delivering the best services at the best cost.

While it may seem daunting to gain a command of every complex technology in existence, lawyers can start with the basics. Learn about the tools that exist to make your practice and life easier, attend conferences, speak with colleagues, find ways to automate tasks best left to AI, and you will be well on your way to becoming more educated and technologically competent.

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