Can Most Lawyers Use Their Law Firm’s Expensive IT Properly?

The short answer is no.

Here is the longer answer.

Last year, in a series of articles and conference papers in the United States, Casey Flaherty – Corporate Counsel for Kia Motors America – created an industry stir with his Attorney IT Skills Audit. At least that’s what I am calling it; in fact, he describes it more as a basic technology competency audit – with the emphasis on the word basic – so much so that the word skill should not really even be used in this context.

Casey Flaherty was an associate at a law firm for several years, during which time he formulated his opinion that most lawyers were not very good at using modern standard IT systems to undertake client work. When he was at a law firm, this view was of mostly academic interest – but when he turned from poacher to gamekeeper it became a matter of keen commercial interest. Determined to see if his opinion was broadly justified, and maybe make a point to some of his panel firms, he devised a series of short tests for attorneys in his law firms.

These tests were not designed to be difficult: sample tasks include (a) formatting a motion in Word, (b) preparing motion exhibits in PDF, and (c) creating an arbitration exhibit index in Excel. The specific tasks, according to him, are of little importance as they are designed to test general skills.

His results were very depressing, as he says:

I’ve administered the audit 10 times to nine firms (one firm took it twice). As far as I am concerned, all the firms failed—some more spectacularly than others. The audit takes me 30 minutes. So, somewhat arbitrarily, I selected 1 hour as passing. The best pace of any associate was 2.5 hours. The worst pace was 8 hours. Both the median and mean (average) pace rounded to 5 hours.

That is bad; very bad. Obviously Casey is interested in technology, and one can assume that he is motivated and adept, but the very idea that most lawyers took 10 times longer than he did, or five times as long as he thinks is reasonable, to undertake relatively simple Microsoft Office tasks is woeful. No wonder he no longer believes in the billable hour. As he says “the audit is not the answer, AFAs are the answer”.

As far as I know, no-one has administered this, or any similar test to solicitors in the UK – in my experience that is just as well. I suspect that if they did the results could be even worse.

I have come across evidence – and recently – that many lawyers, and secretaries, in UK law firms do not know how to perform basic tasks in Word, Excel or even Outlook. Here is an example; in several recent workshops with lawyers and secretaries in a few different firms it emerged that less than 20% of the lawyers and only around 30% of secretaries know how to use automatic paragraph numbering in Word. That is not good, this is functionality invented for law firms that has been in Word since version 2 in 1990 – we are now on version 15.

That is bad enough – as handling paragraph numbering manually is a pain, is woefully inefficient and is prone to inaccuracy. But what is even worse is that we discovered that in practice the consequence of this is that those who do know how to use auto para numbering put it in documents (as they should) and then those who don’t know, take it out again and make all the numbering manual – this takes time. Then, get this, if the document goes back to one of the cognoscenti, they then apparently tend to replace the numbers with automatic ones again – this takes even more time. When I first discovered this was happening I had to leave the room and breathe through a paper bag for 10 minutes. If you then ask how many know how to generate a table of contents, use cross referencing properly, generate an index – none of these things are rocket surgery – you find it is even less than those who know how to use para numbering. You will get very similar results if you ask who knows how to use graphs, sorting and auto-fill in Excel or Outlook rules, tags, tasks and advanced search.

How did this state of affairs come about? Due to a combination of false assumptions, and lawyer behaviour:

False Assumptions

  • Lawyers and secretaries arrive in a firm already knowing how to use Microsoft Word effectively.

No they don’t, and what on earth gave them that idea. Lawyers don’t learn how to use Word properly at home as kids, or at University or as law students – so why would they suddenly get imparted with such arcane know-how just before they join their first law firm? Amazingly, the same goes for secretaries each firm assumes that their previous firms trained them effectively.

  • Their previous knowledge will mean that can learn our own peculiar and tailored version of Word with its unique ribbons and DMS integration with little or no training.

No, and no.  In terms of compounding assumptions, this is akin to trying to heap Pelion upon Ossa. Or as my kids would say, ‘doh’.

Lawyer Behaviour

  • Management: we spend more than enough on IT training, and it really isn’t necessary.

Wrong. You are wasting a large proportion of the money you spend on desktop IT, and you are failing to service your clients properly.

  • Lawyers: we don’t need training, if I press enough buttons eventually I’ll work out a way of doing it. Oh, and I need to appear to be so much in demand with my clients that I must be seen as too busy to attend training. Anyway, there’s no incentive to do so, and no consequences if I don’t.

Absolutely all wrong. You are wasting your time, your law firm’s time and your clients’ time.

I wonder how many overwhelmed young lawyers who are “too busy” to attend IT training sessions have heard of the Victorian-age adage of the farmer who was “too busy” ploughing his field with his horses to spend time looking at this new-fangled thing called a ‘tractor’.

On average, in my experience, most lawyers appear to undertake less than two hours IT training a year. This is distressingly inadequate. Given the inadequate starting knowledge of most lawyers, the rate of change of technology and the potential for increased accuracy and productivity lawyers should probably be having 8-12 hours of IT training a year, even more if new systems are implemented.

In any event they have to have 16 hours of CPD training per year; at least 25% of which must consist of participation in accredited training. That means that IT training can count towards up to 12 of those CPD hours.

Over the years I have seen countless examples of new system implementations that fail, or fail to deliver the level of expected benefits, because of inadequate change management and training. The most spectacular examples are in relation to those systems that that require business change – such as knowledge management or CRM. The first implementation project plan proposes three hours of change management briefing, followed a week later by four hours of training. This is rejected by the management – and prospective users – as an unreasonable encroachment on to their fee-earning time. After much wheeling and dealing this is ‘negotiated’ down to a ½ hr ‘chat’ followed by 1½ hrs of training.

Three months later, the new system is castigated and unused by the very lawyers that it is supposed to be helping. They will say that “it doesn’t work properly”, or “it’s not suitable” or some such – when the simple fact is that they never really understood why they should be using it, or how to use it. As a result it is adjudged a failure, an expensive failure, and gradually falls into almost total disuse – and legal IT takes another drubbing.

This is what generally happened with the first round of firms that implemented the InterAction CRM some 15 years ago. Then, several years later, they re-implemented the system – often with a different name – with suitable change management and more training, and gradually it took off.

What is the point of a law firm buying and implementing costly technology if they do not invest in the (relatively small) amount of time and money it takes to train lawyers how to use it effectively? This is the crux of my argument, so let me repeat that: what is the point of a law firm of buying and implementing costly technology if they do not invest in the (relatively small) amount of time and money it takes to training lawyers how to use it effectively?

Let us remember what Casey Flaherty says: “the audit is not the answer, AFAs are the answer”.

He may be right, I think he is right, and if he is then that simply transfers the cost of lawyers’ incompetence from the client to the law firm. So; effective training of lawyers in technology is no longer just an issue of a waste of money, or even inefficient client service – it becomes a key factor in a law firm’s realisation. In other words; profitability.

Hence our inescapable conclusion: as we move towards AFA/fixed fees lawyers’ IT expertise becomes even more important for law firms to deal with now than it should have been before.

So; what can be done to improve the effectiveness of lawyer’s IT training in law firms. Here are some tactics that I have found work well in many law firms.

  • recognition that training is not an event, it is a process
  • encouragement from the top – instead of team leaders, heads of department and Managing Partners all colluding in the conspiracy that it’s OK for lawyers to fail to attend IT training, the opposite needs to happen. This means senior management agreeing appropriate levels of annual and project-based IT training, stressing the importance of such training, and emphasising that lawyers booked in for courses are expected to turn up
  • leading by example – the partners actually making a point of turning up to training themselves
  • giving lawyers a non-chargeable matter code for all IT training
  • counting it towards CPD
  • offering training out of hours; maybe 6pm with bottle of Meursault (to share)
  • offering Web-based top-up training sessions that they can do at their desk
  • offering one-on-one short sessions at their desk on demand
  • having post-training ‘floor-walkers’ who are around to help with common issues
  • making the training ‘task-based’ as opposed to ‘software based’ – in other words not Microsoft Word 101, but how to prepare a claim and sortable list of exhibits, or how to use the tools to assist with Due Diligence etc – it relates better to what they do for a living and as a result sticks in their heads more effectively
  • have lawyer’s IT capabilities and IT training reviewed in their annual appraisal – then they will know you are serious

This last point leads on to a fundamental related issue – what skills do you expect your lawyers to be able to exhibit? This is actually the right way round to approach the whole issue. Best practice has it that a firm should:

  • firstly; define the required Core IT Competencies, the base technology capabilities that they expect lawyers of different grades and seniority to be able to undertake effectively – in order to be able to do their jobs properly
  • secondly; undertake a skills gap analysis to define – for every lawyer – what training they need to be able to meet those defined level of skills
  • thirdly; define a set of training courses designed to bridge the most common gaps
  • fourthly; execute a series of mandatory training courses, over a sensible period, designed to get everybody up the their required level of skill
  • fifthly; enshrine evaluation against their required Core Competencies in lawyers’ annual appraisal process

Sixthly, and unofficially, in relation to recidivist recalcitrant IT training delinquents it may be that a firm has to adopt Voltaire’s view about how the English used to breed better Admirals (after the execution of John Byng in 1747) – that is, occasionally – to shoot one – ‘pour encourager les autres’.

That should do it. It will take a couple of years, cost some money and some fee-earning time – and it will all be worth it. Especially if Casey Flaherty is right.