Mindset Over Technology Matters

An infected Microsoft Word document arrived in my inbox the other day. It was a reminder that, while technology is an enabler, lawyers need to have a mindset that understands technology’s limitations.

The Word document was attached to an e-mail. I won’t belabor the signs that it was infected – I go through the process here – but the real eye-opener was the technology failure:

  • the infected document had bypassed whatever network e-mail filters exist;
  • when downloaded, it was identified as clean by both the corporate anti-virus and malware apps, when I scanned them;
  • if I’d opened the file, corporate systems policies meant that Word macros were enabled and couldn’t be disabled, so the VBScript trojan in the file would have executed.

Technology competence is a key success criterion for any business. Lawyers are increasingly expected to have an understanding of how their systems work. At the same time, an issue like the one I faced, highlights the wider angle that lawyers face when dealing with technology. When we look at technology as set-and-forget, are we creating points of failure because we no longer wonder whether the technology is working.

Failed backups are a great example. We turn on the backup software, put the drive in place. Done. The mindset here is to test to make sure it’s working, and to retest to make sure it keeps working. This literal black box may not tell us when something’s wrong.

Some of this is training, as in, I get a new piece of software and I get someone to show me how to use it. That training can highlight the limitations of the product, although, frankly, the training may stay away from the cliff edges.

I think the mindset has to be broader than the confines of the specific applications, though. And it’s a mindset that lawyers already bring to other problem solving that they engage in. I’m just not sure we apply it technology.

And why would we? I put bread in the toaster, it comes up as toast. If my car doesn’t start, or a page is missing from a book, I understand that the technology isn’t working properly. I may not understand why, but I can see something is wrong.

The flip side is where we can’t see what’s wrong. Take my infected e-mail: even when I tested it, it said it was clean. I may not understand why, but it seems like everything is right. Instead, if I fell back on my non-technical problem-solving skills, there were plenty of warning signs that this e-mail was problematic. Using those, I (correctly) deleted the email without infecting my system.

Other than prescribing some type of drug that makes lawyers paranoid about technology (some may say lawyers already are), an approach to creating this mindset may be to decouple it from the specific technologies we find in law firms. It may just be me, but it feels as though technology competence is currently focused on app utilization: I can pick up a hammer and successfully put a nail into a board, therefore I am competent.

Lawyers are faced with technology adoption and change as a regular part of law practice. They are concerned about how to stay abreast of that change, and to meet those competence requirements. It seems to me that those talking to them about legal technology and how it fits into law practice can help to create the necessary mindset. One that encourages them to use common sense and their problem-solving education, and to continually question not only whether they are using the right tool, but whether it is even working.

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.