Where Does a Lawyer Start with Tech?

I’ve spoken at the first seminar of Duke’s law office technology course for nearly a decade now.  Last January, a student asked for the first time what I’d suggest as a starting point.  In these days of technology audits, basic technology skills can have some immediate impact for lawyers.  But where does a lawyer or law student get started?

I might have suggested staying on top of legal technology publications but those are few and far between now.  Practical information in publications for lawyers on how to use tech have largely disappeared, save for in bar association magazines.  There’s a great deal on the Web but it’s often narrowly focused: a tip, a particular solution, or something you need to know about before you can start to look for it.  The suggestion I had for the student was to use tools like Lynda.com, which is a paid resource that you may find at your local public library’s Web site for free.

The Toronto Public Library has a subscription, so lawyers who work or live in Toronto can use their library cards to access Lynda.com.  Even if you don’t have free access through your university or public library, a $25 monthly subscription is a good investment in your practice; you may not need more than one month.  My staff have used it pretty regularly, even though they are all experts in their various information or development fields.  The courses can help you get up to speed quickly in a new area or refresh your knowledge in an area that you may not have touched in a while.

There’s still that question of where to start, though.  Whether you use Lynda or any of the other common online course options, they have large catalogs of classes to take.  If I was a law student or someone who wanted to polish or improve their skills, these are the ones I’d start with:

  • Word 2016 Essential Training (David Rivers).  It covers all the basics and is a 5 hour course.  Think of it as sitting down with a nutshell on a topic that you touched in law school and need a refresher.  I was stunned to learn from a colleague in a meeting today that they didn’t know how to create an automatic list in Microsoft Word, despite using the program for a decade or more.  You may not realize what you don’t know.
  • Word 2013:  Styles in Depth (Gina Courter).  The best way to create easy-to-reuse documents that are formatted consistently is to use styles.  This is underappreciated but if you’ve got to draft documents that have repeated elements, or need to comply with court rules, knowing how styles work can save you time.
  • Word 2013:  Creating Long Documents (Maria Langer)  Sooner or later you’re going to create a long document.  In my case in law firms, it was briefs (facta in Canada).  Knowing how to manage tables of contents, indexes, and other tools for managing long documents (which you’ve already properly styled!) can be critical.  Think of the difference between spending unbillable hours fiddling with formatting rather than billable hours on the lawyer stuff.

You may want to focus on courses that cover your version of Word, but I wouldn’t avoid a course just because it’s the wrong version.  Right now I use, at various times and locations, Word 2007, Word 2010, and Word 2013.  Where those things are changes, but the essential functionality is the same.  I would avoid Office365 courses unless you are using it in your law firm.  These courses will not teach you how to do particularly lawyerly things, like a table of authorities.  Do a web search for those when you need to create one, and you’ll find up to date sources that will help you.

Whatever you decide to do, put as much of it into use immediately.  Practice what you learn and get better at it.  And if you forget or don’t use it, go back to the course just like you would a CLE binder or hornbook, and jog your memory.  A bit of time and some curiosity can improve the practical skills you bring to your law practice.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.