Tech Savvy: The New Competency Standard?

October 23, 2012

By: Deanna Brocker

I’m always looking for online articles, classes, and educational materials on the latest technology and how or whether it can or should be incorporated into my law practice. It’s not just about the latest and greatest gadgets, although a friend of mine at the Bar Association’s Center for Practice Management might say that’s the “coolest” part of technology.  I came to realize, though, when I started my own practice, that I would need to rely heavily on technology if I was going to maintain a lean, efficient, versatile and ethical law practice.  I also recognized early on that technology contributes significantly to my continuing success in the practice of law.  Technology helps lawyers gain efficiency in the delivery of legal services to clients, providing more affordable legal services and greater access to justice.  Technology allows lawyers to meet clients’ ever increasing expectations of responsiveness.  It helps lawyers be better advocates through enhanced electronic research, access to expanded resources, effective courtroom presentations, efficiency in collaboration, organization of client data and information management, and thorough analysis of digital evidence.  It can even help prevent ethical pitfalls (think advanced trust accounting software and conflict checking programs).

I believe that education on effective law practice management, including how technology benefits modern law practice, enhances a lawyer’s competency.  Perhaps the ABA House of Delegates agreed when it recently amended the comment to Model Rule 1.1 to require that lawyers be competent in their practice by maintaining “the requisite knowledge and skill” not only in their specific practice areas, but also in understanding “the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.” [1]

There is no question that technological change requires education and then adaptation on our part to keep up.  For example, litigation today demands more than a basic knowledge of technology.  As Bob Ambrogi says in his article on the ABA’s amendment, “[i]t is impossible to competently (let alone zealously) represent a client in a matter involving electronically stored information without a better-than-average familiarity with technology.”[2]

The Law Practice Management Section Council, at its last meeting, adopted a “Resolution Calling for Increased Continuing Legal Education Credits Devoted to Law Practice Management Education.”  As it stands, it is a difficult process to obtain authorization for CLE credit for courses devoted to law practice management.  Yet, effective law practice management, especially through the use of technology, helps lawyers provide affordable legal services in an efficient and ethical manner.  In my practice, I see grievances stem more from law practice management issues, than from any other.  Grievances for trust accounting mistakes, advertising issues, conflicts of interest oversight, delays in or failure to communicate with clients, missed deadlines, and improper supervision of non-legal and legal staff, make up many of the complaints against attorneys that I see.

Effective law practice management enhances the profession and benefits the public.  It’s a win-win.  It seems to me that there is a void that needs to be filled in terms of educating attorneys in this arena.  My hope is that the North Carolina State Bar will follow suit and adopt the ABA’s amendment to Rule 1.1’s comments, recognizing that competence in the practice of law increasingly involves a level of technological understanding and conversance.  This could then pave the way toward liberalizing the CLE rules to provide credit for courses devoted to effective law practice management, including topics relating to technology in the modern day practice of law.

 

[1] The new ABA Model Rule 1.1, Comment: “To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology, engage in continuing study and education and comply with all continuing legal education requirements to which the lawyer is subject.” (new language in italics).  The North Carolina comment [6] is identical to the Model Rule’s comment, except that it does not contain the italicized language.

[2] Bob Ambrogi, “New ABA Ethics Rule Underscores What EDD Lawyers Should Already Know: There’s No Hiding from Technology,” E-Discovery Search Blog, www.catalystsecure.com, August 16, 2012.