Is Legal Technology a Practice Sinkhole?

Technology is supposed to change how lawyers practice. Simplified, it creates efficiencies so that the lawyer can do more: eke out more time, reduce overhead, practice more effectively. I was struck by an article in the Guardian about time management and how it exemplifies a chase with no end.

Time management is a particular aspect of efficiency that has been sold to lawyers. In theory, if she can manage her time better, a lawyer can bill more of it and become more financially successful, or be more responsive to a happier client base, and so on. But the creator of the Inbox Zero e-mail management methodology makes an excellent point in that Guardian piece:

If you’re just using efficiency to jam more and more stuff into your day … well, how would you ever know that that’s working?

How would any of us know that it’s working? In particular, how does a profession that is notoriously bad at analyzing its own processes and activities beyond the billable hour, know that it is becoming more productive?

It’s not for lack of legal technology tools: document automation, time and billing, CRM. Okay, so none of those are law-specific but are instead common business technologies. But these are tools that can make lawyers more productive, if adopted. I wrote previously about the disconnect in the Florida Bar, between the unprepared new lawyers and the impact of technology on practice.

We can see from publications like ILTA and the ABA‘s annual technology surveys that adoption is occurring. But that’s just the first step, really. As with the Florida Bar users, the next issue becomes using (and being trained to use) the new technology so that you actually realize whatever promise it holds. If you were to adopt a new case management system and merely use it the way you used Microsoft Outlook (your previous case management system), you’d be missing the benefits.

The third step which is missing is the analysis that completes the loop: did adopting a new technology, then getting trained to use it and using it effectively, actually impact how I practiced? What are the metrics I use to accomplish that analysis?

There are plenty of time analysis tools (RescueTime, Chrometa, &c.) to help in the basic “what did I do” view. But how does a lawyer connect technology acquisition and use to fulfilling some practice function? Increased billings may be due to having an additional year’s experience as a lawyer, or better networks, or other external changes unrelated to technology adoption.

I’ve been struck before that, while we can make decision trees for automation of documents in certain cases, the legal profession has been unable to systematize a lot of the basic processes of practice. I worked for a lawyer in Michigan who had done this analysis for his practice, documented it, and published and sold it. A lawyer who has done this and knows the cost of each step in time or resources could then assess, after applying technology to the process, whether the change was having an impact.

It’s fair to say that the average lawyer is too busy to do this analysis: even if they are able to assess the cost of an entire matter, they can’t cost out the steps. They are mentored by lawyers who are also too busy. So the guild doesn’t collectively identify the repeatable steps, even though, orally, we can pass on that wisdom.

The Guardian piece strikes a chord because it underscores the problem of applying technology to old processes, even in updating the process. There’s cost involved in adoption, in using the new technology or process well, even new costs (like stress) caused by adoption. I expect it is the rare lawyer, though, who stops after a year, and looks back, and has data to show whether they’ve done anything more than layer on more complexity to their 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.