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Comment: Return on investment for firms buying into tech talent

Added on the 13th Jun 2016 at 10:56 am

Hiring Tech Savvy Lawyers: Why & How 

We lawyers aren’t known for being computer whizzes. In fact, we’re often criticized for our ineptness with technology. But why does it matter? Why should we care?

The answer comes into focus when you consider the efficiency of lawyers and legal practices. In my past job as a partner at an employment law firm in Atlanta, I was an employer of both attorneys and law firm staff. When we first started the firm, my partner and I were both forward-thinking about technology and relatively proficient. Then we started hiring. We quickly realized that an employee’s lack of technical skills was nearly as harmful as a lack of communications skills or a lack of legal knowledge. Attorneys with poor tech abilities couldn’t format Word documents, make simple calculations in Excel or browse the Internet safely. They would also lose files, misuse our practice management system and mysteriously “break” their computers.

These problems were so costly and required so much extra work from the rest of the team that we devised something we called the “computer obstacle course.” We would administer this test to job candidates and see how many of the tasks they were able to complete. Tasks included using and modifying styles in Word, formatting data in Excel, using formulas in Excel, converting various types of documents to PDF format, working with shortcuts, navigating directories on the computer, creating zip files and using common keyboard shortcuts. We didn’t expect anyone to ace the test, but watching candidates work through the tasks told us exactly what we needed to know. If a candidate shrieked in terror whenever clicking an icon, this was a bad sign.

Given that a very large percentage of a lawyer’s work is done on a computer, hiring one that is technically incompetent is like hiring a carpenter who doesn’t want to use a hammer or a tape measure. These are the tools we use to do our jobs!

Hiring & Developing Tech Talent  

Minimum Standards 

Hiring managers should look for a minimum level of technical skills in new hires. Of course, there will also be candidates whose reputation, book of business, or rainmaking abilities can make up for below-average technical skills, it’s still important to know how far below average the person is. Furthermore, below average skills shouldn’t always rule someone out, provided that training is available and the candidate is willing to be trained. The worst combination will always be incompetence combined with disdain for technology (sadly prevalent among some lawyers).

The skills to be tested should include the following:

  • Working with files and directories– how to copy, rename, and move them; file extensions; associating applications with extensions; directories vs. zip files; directory paths; file paths; inspecting files to see their properties; adding files and directories to a zip archive; unzipping an archive; attaching files to emails; previewing files; sorting files based on different attributes; creating shortcuts to files and directories.
  • Using Microsoft Word– copying and pasting; how to paste plain text only; inspecting styles; modifying document styles; the normal template; using and formatting tables; using bullet points and outlines; using headings for document navigation; formatting documents; working with page numbering formats; headers and footers; saving to PDF; working with tracked changes; removing metadata.
  • Using Microsoft Excel (if, like most lawyers, the candidate will be working with numbers or dates at all) – applying formatting to columns; using relative cell references; using absolute cell references; working with formulas; pattern dragging; freezing rows and columns; working with built-in functions; formatting sheets for printing; working with multiple sheets.
  • Using email applications – sending and receiving email; archiving vs. deleting messages; reply vs. reply-all; forwarding; CC and BCC fields; organizing messages in folders; working with draft emails; setting up filters; dealing with spam messages; recognize potential phishing attempts; attaching files to emails.)
  • Browsing the web (understanding common Google search operators, such as quotes and site: knowing what a URL is; encrypted vs. unencrypted websites; safe browsing practices; using an ad-blocker.

The list of important items will vary from firm to firm, or even within departments, but the above is a good starting point. Lawyerist also maintains a downloadable Basic Tech Competence checklist.

Technical evaluations of job candidates can be made via interview questions, homemade obstacle courses like the one I used or software specifically designed for testing computer skills (such as the Legal Tech Audit – developed by pioneering lawyer and technology advocate Casey Flaherty). Delving into this topic may seem strange during the legal interview process, and some might find it too off-putting or even offensive to require a lawyer to complete a technology evaluation. Perhaps these issues are true, but it might be worth it. A process like this would also find wider acceptance if bar associations and law schools emphasize the value of technical skills—and the numerous costs and risks that result from lacking those skills.

Technology Leaders

In addition to ensuring that new lawyers and staff meet basic standards for tech competency, firms can obtain a competitive edge by hiring lawyers with advanced technical skills. I’ve previously written about this kind of lawyer, and I believe that hiring and developing attorneys with these skills is the key to long-term success in the areas of law firm productivity, security and client satisfaction. Firms need technology leaders, and they should be lawyers who are also technology experts. Admittedly, this is a rare breed, but we can develop lawyers with these skills by rewarding them with well paid jobs and helping them obtain continued training to build their skills. Sending a group of lawyers to the Georgetown E-Discovery Academy or to a SANS course of digital forensics may seem costly, but it will pay substantial dividends in savings in vendor-related eDiscovery expenses.

By focusing more on the technology skills that we’ve largely ignored to date, we can make our firms and law departments more efficient and, more importantly, produce better outcomes at a lower cost for our clients. No doubt a tech agenda will encounter some resistance, but that’s true of almost every worthy cause.

Jeff Kerr (pictured on the home page) is a former litigator, the CEO and co-founder of CaseFleet 

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