2018 New Year’s Resolution for the Legal Profession: Make it a Priority to Incorporate Technology Into Our Work, but Set Clearer Boundaries

December 20, 2017

By Bob Glaves  |  CBF Executive Director

Last year at this time, you may remember my new year’s resolution for our profession was to stop calling people non-lawyers, which sadly continues to be a problem and needs to carry forward as a 2018 resolution.

My new resolution for next year is that we as a profession make it a priority to catch up to the rest of the world in the way we use technology. But it comes with a critical corollary: wherever we are on the spectrum of technology adoption, we need to set much clearer boundaries so that technology doesn’t so overwhelm our lives that we lose what makes us uniquely valuable as professionals and people.

Break a Bad Habit

My resolution last year €“ to stop calling people non-lawyers €“ really struck a nerve for many people because it is such a perplexingly bad habit in our profession. The summary version of that resolution is that other legal and business professionals play an increasingly integral role in the success of the legal profession and access to justice, and we need to start calling these professionals by who they are rather than who they are not.

As an American Lawyer headline and its aftermath this past summer underscored, this unfortunate habit is a very stubborn and persistent one in our profession. If we want the media that covers the legal profession to stop doing it, we need to first change our own ways.

So if you are still calling people non-lawyers, however innocently or inadvertently, one of your 2018 resolutions should be a simple one: Stop!

Make Technology Your Friend

The first part of my new resolution for our profession in 2018 €“ to make it a priority to catch up to the rest of the world in the way we utilize technology €“ is hardly an original thought.

As some lawyers are proving every day, technology can make legal services substantially more efficient, affordable, accessible and attractive to clients and potential clients. And with so many low and moderate income people unable to access the legal help they need, it would seem to be the ultimate no-brainer that our profession would be leading the way on this front.

Yet with some notable exceptions, our profession lags far behind other service industries incorporating technology into our work. The people who need legal help are the ones who suffer the most as a result, and this overall failure increasingly is having a negative financial impact on those lawyers who are falling behind too.

There are a number of explanations for why our profession is behind the times on technology, including our inherently conservative mindset in the law, the perverse disincentives the billable hour creates as the dominant form of pricing (one more reason to retire the billable hour once and for all!), and a historic lack of prioritization in legal education.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that we aren’t keeping up. Casey Flaherty became somewhat famous in legal circles for developing the Legal Technology Assessment while he was an in-house corporate counsel. It was created to assess his outside law firm counsel on their competence with the basic technology tools for a modern legal practice, and he found the failure rate was very high. His assessment now is used in wider circles and underscores that we’ve got a long way to go here.

It also is clear that this isn’t some optional item on the longer term to-do list. The duty of technology competence has ethical underpinnings, and that is reason enough to make it a priority. Clients and potential clients also increasingly come with expectations of what they want to see from service providers based on their other life experiences. More often than not, they aren’t seeing that from lawyers, and there is a significant untapped market for people who need or would benefit from legal services as a result.

The bottom line is that in order to meet the legal needs of low and moderate income people in our community in an affordable and effective way, technology needs to become an integral part of our service delivery model. As a recent article noted, corporate departments that are leveraging technological innovations are seeing real results in efficiency and cost savings, and we have every reason to believe that is true in the market for personal legal services as well. Andrew Sharp at Illinois Legal Aid Online said it well in a recent tweet: As the saying goes, robots won’t replace lawyers (entirely), but lawyers who use robots will replace lawyers who don’t.

In the coming year, I will be writing more about technology’s impact on the profession, and both its great potential and real limitations (on its own) for improving access to justice. In the meantime, we are lucky to have one of the best resources in the country here in Chicago to help you get started in carrying out this 2018 resolution: Catherine Sanders Reach and the Chicago Bar Association Law Practice Management & Technology Center.

But Place Some Clearer Boundaries on that Friendship€¦

As much as we collectively need to quickly get a lot more comfortable with using technology to make our legal services more affordable, accessible and attractive to clients, just about all of us (present company included) would benefit from setting much clearer boundaries.

Because as much as we’ve lagged behind on technology overall, our profession is among the leaders in picking up some of the most unhealthy habits associated with it, particularly this pervasive idea that we always need to be plugged in.

As the saying goes, we have met the enemy and the enemy is us.

For a profession where success increasingly will depend on most effectively leveraging our unique analytical, counseling and advocacy skills as we look towards the future, this is no small matter to stay at the top of our games when it comes to our mental sharpness and focus. And ironically, as much as our future success will depend on using technology effectively to employ those unique skills, it will be equally important that we find practical ways to regularly unplug from that technology or it won’t work.

A book I read at the end of the summer, Hamlet’s Blackberry, really drove that point home for me. That book, written back in 2010 when Blackberry was still synonymous with smart phone (that was just seven years ago!), warns of the negative effects our obsession with staying connected can have on our brains and the way we live our lives. Drawing on lessons for how humans have adjusted to other disruptive advances over the course of history, the author, William Powers, gives a number of practical tips for succeeding in this new world. A central theme is that we need to make a concerted effort to set clear boundaries in order to maximize the benefits of these new technologies.

Recent studies also confirm that our profession has outsized rates of anxiety, depression and substance abuse, which is not a new phenomenon but one that appears to be growing. While there are a number of factors behind that stark reality, the fact that many of us feel like we need to be connected at all times cannot be helping.

With those points in mind, I’ve come up with a few suggestions for our legal profession (including me!) to consider as we look to 2018 and beyond.

Time boundaries, daily and on weekends

Because our smart phones give us the ability to be available 24/7 every day of the year, it is incumbent on each one of us to set our own limits on that access or that is exactly what is going to happen.

My suggestion: On a daily basis, turn off the smart phone, laptop and other computers at least one hour before going to sleep and keep them off for at least one hour after waking in the morning. On the weekend, make sure to shut down from work access for at least one full day. And set those expectations for others (including, for those of us in leadership positions, for the rest of our colleagues).

There of course will be some exceptions here. As a former litigator, being on trial would be one for sure; for a transactional lawyer, a big deal; or for a tax lawyer, a time like right now that unfortunately falls right around the holidays when there are major outside developments. But we can’t always be acting as though we are on trial or we’ll burn out.

I also recognize for some practices (e.g., criminal law, or those who work across time zones) or work schedules (e.g., flexible schedules for family reasons), some odd hours inherently may be involved. For those instances, while the time boundaries may need to shift, the key is to make sure to set them.

Vacation

Somewhere along the way after I started practicing in the early 1990’s, the line between being on vacation and just working away from the office got very blurry. Back then, when you went away on vacation, both the expectation and the reality was you would be very hard to reach and no one would even try except in an emergency. We’d usually leave a phone number where someone might be able to track us down, and it was rare that ever happened.

Today, we of course have the ability to stay plugged in to work while away, and for many that has become the default assumption. The problem is that defeats the whole purpose of vacation €“ to get away and recharge. And who exactly was it who changed those rules?

My suggestion: go back to the way it was before and stay off of work-related email and networks while on vacation, leaving open an option for colleagues to call, text or send a personal email if there is a true emergency where someone needs to reach us. And while I’m not a fan of this approach unless it is absolutely necessary, if there truly is a need to stay plugged in for some critical reason while away, limiting it to a narrow band of the day (e.g., between 8 and 9 am) can at least lessen the disruption.

Email (and Social Media too)

Email is the bane of my existence and for so many others I know. Email has changed our work lives in so many positive ways by making it much faster, easier and greener to communicate with colleagues, clients and other people we do business with.

That blessing is also a great curse, making us always connected and at least in my case, almost always overwhelmed with the volume of email we receive. As I’ve analyzed that a bit closer though, much of that downside is self-inflicted, and with some planning and discipline it can be mitigated quite a bit.

For example, what passes for breaking news alerts these days is a pretty loose standard to say the least. By taking the time to set up rules for your inbox to route less pressing kinds of emails into folders organized by type (a step I’ve stupidly been avoiding because I feel like I don’t have time!), we can look at those emails when it makes sense for us rather than when someone else far removed thinks we should be seeing them.

Similarly, many a guru has made the good suggestion to limit our time on email to specific times of day so we can maintain our focus the rest of the day on the important tasks at hand. As I’ve proved to myself over and over, multi-tasking really is a myth, and with a little discipline, this is an easy one for all of us to adopt.

The same goes for social media, a great way to connect with others and stay up on important legal news and trends, but only when used in moderation and at set times of day. I’ve noticed that when I do go on Twitter or LinkedIn, there are a number of people who appear to be on there throughout the day (and often at night too). Putting aside those folks who are doing that in their professional roles as analysts or commentators, the many others I see doing this all cause me to wonder the same thing: what they do all day in their actual job?

A better way forward in 2018

If you have read this far, you now have my two and a half cents for most effectively using technology to make legal services more affordable and accessible for clients who need our help while maintaining appropriate boundaries with the rest of our work and personal lives. Hopefully this at least is food for thought for how our profession can do this better, and please do stop calling people non-lawyers!

Happy holidays to you and yours, thanks for reading, and onward and upward in 2018!