Posted by: johnocunningham | August 17, 2012

New Ethics Rules Mandate Technology Competence For Lawyers

The American Bar Association’s new model rules of professional conduct impose a new burden on lawyers – a requirement to become familiar with technology.

Rule 1.1, relating to lawyer competence, has long provided that “a lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client,” adding that a lawyer “should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice.” But now that rule also clarifies that keeping abreast of current practice requirements includes “the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.” Essentially, the ethics rules have recognized that part of representing a client competently is representing a client efficiently.

The profession should embrace this new vision because it will mean greater client satisfaction and development in the long run, and fewer client defections to “alternative providers” such as LegalZoom, private dispute resolution, and other purveyors who compete with law firms to provide solutions for clients.

So how can a lawyer or group of lawyers “keep abreast of… the benefits and risks of relevant technology?”

Here is a “starter list” of ideas, some of which I have successfully employed as a practicing lawyer in the past:

  • Appoint a person  on staff to be the “tech guru” responsible for keeping up with technology solutions for lawyers, and encourage that person to talk to as many reputable tech vendors as possible who can provide technology solutions relevant to the firm’s practice;
  • Prepare a list of time-consuming practice “headaches” and have your tech guru be on the lookout for solutions to those problems;
  • Give your tech guru a budget to visit trade shows and subscribe to trade magazines (many of which are free or low-cost) so that they can learn the universe of technology possibilities;
  • Have quarterly or even monthly meetings with the tech guru to discuss what tech solutions have been identified, what solutions have been implemented or are being implemented, and how those solutions can continually be refined or improved for everyone’s benefit.

Among other things, lawyers should now be familiar with or fast becoming familiar with technology solutions in each of the following areas:

  • Knowledge management, which provides lawyers and clients with faster retrieval of institutional knowledge (such as research memos, pleadings, briefs, or other knowledge-related products that you have already produced in the past).
  • Legal research on-line for faster retrieval and sorting of relevant statutes, regulations or cases.
  • Predictive coding for rapid and accurate sorting, retrieval, and responses required in e-discovery.
  • Process improvement (to identify opportunities to shrink time and money spent on lengthy processes, such as probate, discovery, or due diligence).
  • Project management and collaboration (to improve teamwork, eliminate redundancy, and improve turnaround and response times).
  • E-billing software for automated checking of bills against client instructions or agreements.
  • Infrastructure support, such as tech systems for accounting, time-keeping, payroll, human resources and other systems essential to keeping firm costs down for the benefit of lawyers and clients alike.

Pursuant to the new ethical rules, technological competence is no longer “optional” for lawyers. Those who accept and embrace this change, will not only avoid ethical sanctions, they will reap the rewards of improved client service, greater client development and retention, and ever-increasing share of the market.

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  1. [...] What to Master and How under the New ABA Rules; and [...]


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