A few months ago, I had a matter involving another lawyer who was serving as a neutral evaluator in a Federal Tort Claims Act case. He was an impressive character. His quick thinking and creative approach inspired me, especially in light of the fact that he was a bit older than me (62) and still had an edge to him. After a certain age in this business, you worry about being stale and complacent. If you don’t worry about it, you probably are, but just haven’t recognized it yet. When you look around, stale and complacent is a generous description for way too many of my peers. This lawyer was anything but that.
As we were wrapping up our meeting, this attorney told everyone gathered that he would “dictate” a follow-up email which would go out “within a couple of days.” This struck me as curious, but thinking back on our previous interactions, it dawned on me that he didn’t really know how to use email. I was incredulous. It’s 2017, and no one practices this way. I confess that I puffed up with a bit of smug self-righteousness. With a nationwide practice, I pride myself on being able to work remotely from anywhere. I can be just as efficient on the road in Oregon or Arizona as I am in my office in Richmond, Virginia. What was this guy’s problem?
My bubble burst the morning I returned to my office. Although I typically review almost everything electronically, for various reasons sometimes you still need a printed copy. As was my pattern, I simply sent an email to my assistant asking her to print a particular expert report. And then it hit me: I didn’t know how to use the printer. I didn’t even know what printer to use. Albeit through an email, I was doing exactly what I would have done when I first started practice in 1984: Asking and expecting my non-lawyer assistant simply to handle this. So much for being a cutting-edge 21st century lawyer.
I am not alone. Like almost everyone born before the mid-1970s—and some would push that into the 1980s—the world in which we were raised, educated, and first employed is a very different one than our current digital age. Think of it in language terms: Our native tongue is analog; for the younger lawyers, digital. And whether we like it or not, digital is the language of business. For us analog folks, attaining perfect fluency is almost impossible—just as it is for adults learning a foreign language—but you have to know enough to understand what is going on and, just as important, be understood. Also like learning a foreign language, it’s not easy and sometimes messages get lost in translation. There is a reason why law firms and the law business is often perceived as being resistant to technology and innovation. Most law firms are still controlled by “non-native speakers,” people like me.
What can lawyers like myself do to function better in the digital age? Here are my suggestions:
1. Accept that you cannot avoid addressing the changes that come with technology.
Deal with it. The changes of the last 25 years have been tremendous and the pace will accelerate. The reality is that the changes in technology can improve the practice of law and make life easier for all of us, but change is never easy and never without a downside. If you’re not willing to deal with it, move aside for someone who can. It may sound harsh, but if a firm is to survive, old mindsets have to be questioned and updated.
2. Make compliance mandatory.
Offices typically have protocols for the use of things like document or practice management systems. Enforce those protocols for everyone, including senior lawyers (who can often be insistent on doing things a certain way). Non-compliance creates confusion (at best) and huge risk. The impact on office morale is detrimental too. Frankly, as painful as it can be, you are actually doing a favor for your older lawyers to force them to learn and use a firm’s IT systems.
3. Know what you don’t know.
If you are a lawyer, most likely you have a healthy ego, especially if you are a senior partner and/or running a law firm. Admitting ignorance does not come easily. We are often loathe to do it, but the simple fact is our knowledge is at best limited on many things, and technology is often an important one. If we don’t appreciate the fact that we are not experts (or even reasonably well-versed), we not only frustrate those working with us who do understand, but we put our practices at huge risk. In sum, as Clint Eastwood put it in one of his movies: A man has to know his limitations. (Obviously, the same would apply to a woman.) If you don’t appreciate your limitations, you are a hazard to yourself and others.
4. Ask for help.
A corollary of the first point is seeking the expertise of others. Of course, this might be in the form of IT consultants and providers. Almost all of us have such services and they are important, but what I am really talking about is the people you work with every day. I didn’t need a consultant to tell me how to use the printer. My assistant was happy to show me—and likely relieved that I asked. Whether it is the nuances of Outlook or the idiosyncrasies of a document management system, people right outside your door almost certainly know a lot more than you do and can help. My observation is that, in fact, most of the younger staff and lawyers are genuinely happy to assist. When they are out of earshot they might have a good laugh at my ignorance, but that’s okay. If your ego can’t take that, you need to retire or do something else for a living.
5. Figure out what you really need to know how to do.
Law practices need to be efficient. We are no different than any other business in that regard and the penalties of inefficiency can be harsh. To be efficient as a lawyer, you cannot do everything yourself (at least if you have a busy practice). You need a division of labor and it should be a rational one. Efficiency is not just for the lawyers. Everyone needs to be as efficient as they can. It may seem like a trivial example, but let’s go back to my situation about using the printer: Before learning to do this myself, I would look at a document and decide I needed a hard copy. This then produced an email. When the email popped up in my assistant’s inbox, she might well have been in the middle of something, which she would then feel obliged to set aside to print my document. By knowing how to send a document to the correct printer, I saved the step of sending an email, and the only additional effort on my part was to get out of my chair and walk to the printer, probably less than a minute’s effort, while my assistant’s work was not disrupted. Overall, that seems to be the more efficient way to do something—and getting up and moving around is good for guys my age, an incidental benefit I suppose. If a task is something that occurs regularly, such as printing a document or putting an appointment in Outlook, it makes sense for the lawyer to be able to do it on his or her own. This involves the fewest steps by all involved and, therefore, enhances efficiency. I could list many other examples, as a law practice is filled with many such rote but very necessary tasks.
6. Figure out what you really don’t need to know how to do.
This is the flip side of No. 3. We can’t do everything, so it makes no sense to do those things that someone else can do faster and better. The line between what you need to know how to do and what you don’t is not a bright one, and is likely to vary from lawyer to lawyer. For example, I leave to my paralegal and assistant the “finalization” of correspondence and pleadings. My familiarity with the formatting operations in Word is limited, and more importantly, I know I am not a very good proofreader. I never have been. While I might draft and edit a document, I defer the preparation of the final copy to others with better skills in that area.
7. Make yourself learn how to do new things.
And do it frequently. This involves an intentional effort to step outside your comfort zone. Many of us really like our comfort zones, so doing so does not come easily. Like most firms, my practice has a document management system, and like most document management systems, ours is definitely quirky. It’s easy and tempting as a senior lawyer just to let others deal with it. My efforts to use it myself are at times frustrating, but slowly I am learning. I get a number of benefits from this, not the least of which is being able to use our “file system” myself whether I am in the office or on the road. I hope it also gives me a better appreciation of what our staff and younger lawyers deal with—and that is important in its own right.
Finally, what advice do I have for younger lawyers and law firm staff, those native Digital speakers? First, remember that everyone shares the same goal. We want to do a good job for our clients and make a decent living in the process. In getting there, however, you need to understand the potential for “translation errors.” If someone does not speak English, simply raising your voice and speaking a little slower is not likely to aid in comprehension. It’s not that much different here. The person not comprehending is not stupid, and it is the height of unfairness to reflexively assume they are. For everyone to enjoy the benefits of technology, a curiosity and willingness to learn is needed by those of us who have been doing this for 20 or 30 years or more. Just as important, those on the other end need an ethic of sharing and patience—and let’s not forget a sense of humor, too.
About the Author
Brewster S. Rawls is the founder of Rawls Law Group, a healthcare law firm based in Richmond, VA. Contact him on Twitter @RawlsLawGroup.