Lawyer training at the tipping point

D. Casey Flaherty, corporate counsel for Kia Motors, has caused some stir in the legal world with his ‘tech audits’. We have previously described his iniative in the post “Promoting change in the legal sector in practice”, and now recently Sue Pasfield and Joanne Humber reported on “the seismic activity in the legal technology training world” brought about by these tech audits in the Legal IT Professionals guest column “Lawyer Training – The Tipping Point has arrived”.

What Casey does is that he audits the technology comptence of his potential outside counsels to avoid inefficiencies in low value added work. Previsously when he himself was working at law firms, focus was on selling billable hours, not working towards reducing the number of hours by reducing inefficiencies, and he could merely witness how clients were charged for unnecessary work. It is now, in his new role as corporate counsel, his skills in how to reduce billable hours has become valuable.

So far, Casey reports that sadly none of the firms he has audited has passed the test: “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.”

Casey does not claim to have the data or rigor to quantify just how much waste exists in the legal system or what percentage of it is attributable to technological incompetence, but these tests prove that a lot of waste exists in the legal system and that enough of that waste is attributable to technological incompetence to make this a problem worth addressing. As also concluded by Sue Pasfield and Joanne Humber, “Casey has brought to light a situation which law firm trainers have struggled with for decades – that technology training has not been deemed critical for lawyers. How many times have we heard from trainers that “Lawyers don’t come to training” and “No, we can’t make it mandatory”. Irrespective of any Tech Audit, it is in the interest of firms to make their lawyers more proficient with technology.”

A recent survey on legal industry adoption, by Neochange and Capensys, shows the rather surprising, or ironic, result that firms with higher rates of technology adoption billed 25% more time than those with low adoption rates. The reason herefore might be the fact evident from other Neochange studies that the average user productivity loss due to low user adoptaton of IT systems is 17% (the same loss of time as if giving everyone Friday off). Another survey on how to meet client expections, by MicroSystems and ALM Legal Intelligence, shows the need for a reality check on the part of law firms on technology training, since only 3 % of law firms states that they have been fired over sub-par documents, whereas 51% of their clients’ legal departments  say they have fired outside counsel for sub-par documents and delivery.

The American Bar Association’s own rules now state clearly that the standards for professional competency requiring attorneys to comprehend technology are rapidly rising. Reality bytes: New ABA rules require you to get with tech program-like it or not”: Now, every lawyer has the new duties of keeping up with technology relevant to the client and the representation, and protecting electronically stored confidential client information.

This tipping point has occurred at the same time as great improvements in training delivery methods which make it easier to deliver lawyer training. As concluded by Sue Pasfield and Joanne Humber in their column: “It is a win-win situation for law firms. Trainers and CIOs have long understood that by offering a more comprehensive and flexible training programme for lawyers, they accomplish many key goals: It will enable their firms to increase flexibility, improve the staff: lawyer ratio; reduce the circulation of documents which have been incorrectly styled and manually formatted;  reduce the numbers of corrupt documents and late filings; reduce Inbox sizes and mitigate the risk of incorrectly filed documents and versioning problems etc. Trainers and IT Departments always struggled to make the training happen because of competition from the billable hour. Now, however, the game has changed.”

However, as pointed out by Casey himself, neither the audit, nor improved technology training, is the answer to every challenge facing the legal profession. Rather, alternative fee arrangements are the answer. As explained in the article “Could you pass this in-house counsel’s tech test? If the answer is no, you may be losing business”“With the audit, I am not attempting to offer “the answer” to every challenge facing the legal profession. Clients expend such substantial sums on legal work that incremental improvements at the margin save real money. Basic technological competence is low-hanging fruit, and the object of the audit is its own obsolescence in the very near term. I therefore tailored the audit to the legal market as currently structured. I would prefer to avoid having the issue subsumed into the long-standing, often vitriolic debate over AFAs.”