The Information Age has arrived, and its daily growth rate turns out to be faster than many of us can comprehend. Even fewer of us can adequately cope. Things are measured against the speed of light in a world dominated by ones and zeros.
As one astute observer put it: “In an era of unprecedented change, an industry based on precedent is in trouble.” So what should we lawyers do about this un-precedented and unsettling situation?
First, we should remember that, in any unpleasant situation, there are always only three options: (1) accept the new situation and work with it, (2) change the situation, or (3) remove yourself from it. Obviously, with the rapid intrusion of tech-nology the last two options are gone. The only choice is to accept the intrusion of technology and figure out how to work with it. Perhaps that’s distasteful, but at least we don’t have to form a committee to study our options.
And it’s not like technology snuck up on us overnight.
The Evolution of Technology, From Basic to Digital
Technology is something that we humans have always relied on. We’ve learned how to build and use automobiles, buildings, typewriters, pencils, paper, telephones and so on. These things aren’t going away, and no one who works in the modern world wants them to. Ditto for computers, smartphones and the Internet. The only question we should be asking ourselves is how can we make use of new technologies to do a better job for ourselves and our clients?
Digital technologies are particularly helpful in managing information, which is good for open-minded lawyers because processing information is 90% of what we do. Whether you’re a transactional lawyer or a litigator, you probably have to create documents and read documents created by others. So you are familiar with word processing, right? Some lawyers say, “Yeah, of course, word processors have been around for over 20 years.” Very true, and yet many lawyers do not know how to open a document and edit it. Those lawyers need to take more control and learn how to use word processors.
Email has been around for over 10 years, and, believe it or not, there are lawyers who still don’t know how to properly manage their email. A few holdouts don’t even open their own email; they have their secretaries print it out for them. Lawyers need to take more control of email and learn how to use it.
Have you noticed that I keep saying “some lawyers need to take more control?” Here’s why:
Powerful new technologies allow one person to do what many people were required to do. Sending emails to multiple recipients is easy (especially with the “autocomplete addressing” feature). Attaching documents to an email is pretty simple. Editing word processing documents or creating PowerPoint presentations is easy too. Millions of grade-school kids have learned this in a few minutes, probably on their own. And yet there are lawyers and judges who resist learning new ways to handle email or edit documents. They’re perfectly content to let their secretaries do this for them. So they get no benefit from the efficiencies inherent in these technologies.
If you regard technology as an intrusion, something that you’ll reluctantly accept, then you’ll never benefit from it. And if you float in a river but don’t paddle or even make any attempt to swim, then you’ll have no control and you’ll just wind up wherever the river takes you.
Leverage Technology for Competitive Advantage
Here are some key ways that lawyers can use technology to gain the control and thereby take advantage of technology.
First, many lawyers need to learn as much as they can about managing email. The skills involved in creating and editing an email are the same skills that take place when editing a word processing document. But there is much more to managing email than just sending and receiving it. Storing email is important, as is making sure it’s backed up. Lawyers should ask themselves (or the closest tech-savvy person): Where are my emails stored? Where and how are the emails backed up? Knowing this information will enable control.
Litigators who deal with discovery of emails should especially be asking these questions, since these questions will inevitably come up when seeking production of emails. How can you ask for an opponent to produce emails when you have not the slightest idea about how a typical email system works?
Sure, you can hire an expert (e.g. cede control) . But are you going to hire an ex-pert to help you understand something that your teenage son or daughter might happen to understand by simply paying attention?
Email is ubiquitous, and any business lawsuit now will feature production and discovery of emails. The more you know about email the better off you’ll be, and the best way to understand email is to learn all of features in your email program that help you work better and faster in your every day life. Do you know how to create folders in your email program to store messages? Do you know how to set up rules to automatically put messages into certain folders? Do you know how to flag messages or sort your email messages? Do you know how to search for email messages?
If you do know how to do these things then you’re ahead of many lawyers. If you don’t, you shouldn’t panic; it’s easy to learn if you decide you are willing to take control.
Ernest Svenson is a former commercial litigation lawyer and technology enthusiast. He’s a prolific blogger, and founded PDFforLawyers, DigitalWorkflowCLE, and the “Ernie the Attorney” blog (which was chosen by the ABA Journal as one of the top 100 law blogs two years in a row). Ernie believes that the practice of law is largely an “information processing business” and helps lawyers find ways to improve their practice. If you want to get in touch with Ernie, you can send him an email message. He doesn’t print them out.