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How (Technologically) Competent Are You?

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By Erin E. Rhinehart

Competency is the ability to do something successfully and efficiently. It is a threshold requirement of every lawyer. Put differently, the foundation of all good lawyers is competency. But, what can you do in law school to start getting ahead? A lot, actually.

This article does not set out to identify the innumerable subjects on which lawyers must be “competent.” Instead, this article focuses on a recent amendment to the very first Model Rule of Professional Conduct. (The Model Rules serve as templates for most states’ respective rules of ethics and professionalism governing lawyers.) In particular, Model Rule 1.1 provides: “A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client.” Simple enough, right? The comments go on to explain what it means to be competent. Those comments now advise lawyers that a basic understanding of the risks and benefits of relevant technology is essential to competent legal representation:

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 . . . .
Model Rule 1.1, Cmt. 8 (emphasis added).

Fortunately, for many of you, you grew up with technology. You have an inherent advantage over older generations of lawyers who may be resistant to the adoption of technology within the practice of law. Seize upon this advantage! Older lawyers may rely (heavily) on your knowledge of ever-changing technological advancements and what those changes mean for the practice of law. Indeed, in a recent article in the ABA Journal, US Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola of the District of Columbia is quoted as saying, “Why hire a lawyer who doesn’t even have the technological competence to complete simple, everyday tasks like converting a Microsoft Word document into a PDF?” Judge Facciola went on to add that, “The absence of technical knowledge is a distinct competitive disadvantage.” In other words, not only can you add value after you’re hired, you now have a skill set to exploit to potential employers. Did your ears perk up? They should have.

So, how can you get ahead now? Following is a list of the top four ways you can begin cultivating your professional and ethical competency.

1. Take full advantage of all of the free resources available to law students. It may be hard to believe now, but there will come a day, not too long after graduation, when you will long for the days of free, unrestricted access to all of the major legal research databases. Don’t waste this precious resource. Experiment with the various programs, alerts, and research capabilities. Attend lunch-time seminars on cost-effective researching (turn to page 18 for more on this topic!), new products, and best practices. Mastering these necessary tools of the legal trade will pay in dividends during and after law school.

2. Don’t overlook the human resources at your law school. Your professors are a wealth of knowledge both inside and outside the classroom. Many of your professors entered the world of academia after spending considerable time in private practice, working in-house or clerking for a judge. Develop authentic relationships with your professors. Ask questions, learn from their mistakes and successes, and utilize their talents to help you hone yours. For example, if you have a particular interest, work with your professors on a research paper that evaluates the legal implications of rapidly advancing technology. The US Supreme Court recently held that police must have a warrant to search a criminal suspect’s cell phone. Riley v. California, 573 U.S. __ (2014). Read the decision; discuss the decision with one of your professors (perhaps a professor known for her interest in the interplay between technology and the law); ask your professor if she is willing to help you author an article regarding the decision. Graduating from law school with a publication or two under your belt not only sets you apart from the competition, it also demonstrates several highly sought after (and surprisingly uncommon) skills—self-motivation and leadership to name two. (And, by the way, you likely just earned yourself a very personal and impressive letter of recommendation from that professor.)

3. Use social media to build your professional reputation. The legal profession is mired in tradition, custom, and ritual. To those lawyers who revel in the tradition of law, technology can be intimidating. Young lawyers often fail to recognize their ability to alleviate some of that intimidation with their technological savvy. Social media is a great example. While many lawyers have dipped their proverbial toes in the pond that is LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, they still have a bad rap when it comes to professional social networking. Develop best practices for professional uses of these platforms. Law school (if not sooner) is a great time to clean up your online presence. For example, what does your profile picture say about you? Put on a suit and have a friend take a professional-looking photo of you in your school’s law library or courtroom. Your profile photo sets the tone for your online presence. I’ve had a number of law students ask to connect with me on LinkedIn and Facebook after meeting at a bar association event or panel discussion held at the local law school. I am always impressed with the students who took care to create a professional online presence, and somewhat surprised (and, admittedly, off-put) by those whose profile picture looks like a candid shot of an undergrad on spring break. Image matters. If potential employers, colleagues, and other professionals cannot picture you as a lawyer, do you really think that they will hire you?

4. Identify ways to be cost efficient and cutting edge. Want to see a managing partner’s ears perk up? Tell her that you have ideas on how the firm can use its existing technology to be more cost efficient. It is amazing how much (free!) information you can find online regarding a potential juror, opposing party, or a company’s history and culture. Do you know how to set up a Google alert? Learn now. It is an easy way to keep current on a trending area of law, potential landmark decision, or sought-after employer. Daydream about becoming a litigator? Seek out one of your professors who left BigLaw and ask her about best practices for document management. It may not be the most titillating conversation you’ve ever had, but you will learn about various online document management systems; knowledge that will put you ahead of the curve during your next summer clerkship. You don’t need to have all the answers now, but it helps to know enough to start asking the right questions. (Here’s an off-topic, but generally applicable, piece of advice: Great lawyers ask great questions. Great lawyers admit and embrace that they do not know everything.)

Walt Disney once said, “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” So get to it. Get out there, learn, innovate, and master your technological competency.

 

Erin E. Rhinehart is an attorney with Faruki Ireland & Cox P.L.L., a complex commercial litigation firm in Dayton, Ohio.

Vol. 43 No. 4

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.