Whether you’re a “tech person” or not, technology is changing the legal field, and you need to embrace technology if you’re going to thrive in your career.
But what, exactly, must you know?
Here are eight tech tips any law student needs to know to avoid becoming a luddite attorney.
Learn to code
This tip is hotly debated, even in the legal tech community. Learning to code doesn’t necessarily mean becoming a software developer. But understanding the basics of how software works will let you better understand what can be automated, how to work with tech people, and how prepare legal advice for tech clients. Learning to code also introduces you to terms that can be vital for describing technology in a patent or contract or in talking confidently with a client.
If your law school offers a coding for lawyers class, take it. If your school is behind the times and doesn’t offer such a class, take one of the many free online coding courses.
You can find hundreds of video tutorials on YouTube, and coding courses at the nonprofit Khan Academy are free.
There are many coding languages, and it generally doesn’t matter which one you pick at first; the core concepts of coding are similar among all coding languages. However, if you have a choice, most people start with Python.
Be comfortable with new software
Too many people avoid technology and are comfortable saying, “Oh, I’m not really a tech person.” This is the wrong mindset.
For some people, learning new software comes hard. But like everything, it becomes easier with time. Law firms today use many different software products, and that number is only going to go up.
Your working career will consist of you learning case management systems, ediscovery platforms, contract assistant software, data transfer programs, and court interfaces. Some firms will offer training, and others will hand you a manual and expect you to be proficient by the end of the week.
Your ability to maximize the software you use and tackle new software quickly will dramatically increase your efficiency.
If you’re the type of person who gets frustrated with new software or you struggle to learn new interfaces, now’s the time to bite the bullet. Explore the advanced options in your Lexis/Westlaw accounts, and convince your study team to switch to a free project management program such as Slack.
Forcing yourself to frequently use new software will help you better understand the inherent design of software rather than memorizing the exact steps you need to perform a single task. You don’t want to be one of those people who has specific, written instructions describing exactly which buttons to click to perform a particular task. Inevitably, the menu will change, a button will be moved, and you’ll be back at square one.
Keep up to date with new tech
It’s important to be generally aware of new technology that exists. Products are introduced all the time that don’t have immediate overlap with the legal field but may have ancillary uses. Virtual reality can be used for training pro se clients and new attorneys. Smart watches may give you the edge in communicating with co-counsel during a trial.
More importantly, you want to comprehend potential risks related to these new technologies for when your clients start to use them. An understanding of what data is transmitted and kept on a smartwatch or the risk of falling down while in VR can help you better represent your client. If your income supports such indulgences, buy the new wireless door lock, robot vacuum, and VR headset.
Take cybersecurity seriously
Lawyers are given an absurd amount of sensitive data, but it can be really difficult to understand how to securely protect data. As any cybersecurity professional will tell you, the biggest threat to a data breach is the user. This can be through bad passwords, poor understanding of the risks, clicking on malware links, and more. You can be an outstanding attorney on track to make partner, and all it takes is one serious data breach caused by your negligence to bring your career to a screeching halt.
Start with the basics. Don’t reuse passwords, use two-factor authentication whenever possible, and use a password manager (such as LastPass, KeePass, or Google Password Manager) that creates and stores your passwords. There are still people who think they’ve cleverly outwitted hackers by using a common word but changing the “S” to “$” and the “a” to “@.”
A supercomputer can try one billion password combinations per second. It won’t be slowed down by p@$$word.
Transferring sensitive data can be tricky as well, especially if you’re under a time crunch. If you’re lucky, your employer’s IT department will have a program for transferring or encrypting data that’s put onto portable storage devices.
Setting up the extra security almost always makes the process more time consuming. But forcing yourself to get into the habit of doing it now will normalize it in your career.
Avoid the dinosaurs
No matter what field of law you end up practicing, technology will radically change it in the next 10–20 years. Make sure the people you work for also understand that. Joining a law firm or company where the partners insist on doing things the way they’ve always been done is a surefire way to slam the brakes on your career.
When deciding where to work, look at the case management system the potential employer uses. Is the IT department just one person who helps reset passwords, or is there a team of people who are integrated into the company? This can be difficult to ascertain as a potential hire. Try reaching out to classmates who’ve worked at the firm and talking to attorneys who currently work there. If you find yourself working at a firm that refuses to adapt to technology, you should leave quickly.
Be mindful of repetitive tasks
This tip goes hand in hand with learning to code, which can help you spot repetitive tasks. If your specialized legal knowledge can be boiled down to a decision tree or flowchart, you’re at risk of automation. This doesn’t mean you should avoid those areas at all costs. Just be aware of the value you’re bringing to the table. You don’t want to become deeply knowledgeable in an area and wake up one day to find that someone has created a Turbo Tax that does your job.
Determining how much of your job can be automated can be difficult to ascertain. Compounding the problem, lawyers tend to overestimate how much of their job could be done only by a well-trained attorney.
The best way to make sure you don’t fall into this mindset is to sit down and write a flow chart of a particular legal determination from start to finish. Are the data points needed to make the decision objective, such as age, or subjective, such as expression of remorse? Computers are good at the former and bad at the latter. If you gave your flow chart and instructions to a 1L, what percentage of decisions would they get wrong? Keep in mind that a program doesn’t have to be 100 percent effective to replace you.
Know which rules to bend
The rules around the practice of law haven’t changed much in 200 years. As a profession, we’ve started to crash up against those rules. At what point does a computer program “practice law?” Where’s the line when soliciting clients using geofencing and social media?
If you’ll be starting out on your own hoping to gain an edge using technology, these issues can pose a real dilemma.
Deciding how close to the line you can go can be tricky; the last thing a new lawyer wants to do is to put their law license at risk.
But it’s also important to understand that the rules of the game are changing. Places like Utah are experimenting with a regulation sandbox, where companies can request exemption from particular regulations. Courts and bar associations all over the country are relaxing their interpretation of rules of professional conduct. Don’t be too rigid with your thinking of the current rules.
Know how to use Excel
The data you’ll use will only continue to grow throughout your legal career. From legal data related to your client’s case to administrative data on how effectively you’re billing to analytics related to client retention, the data you’ll need to work with will inevitably expand.
For a while, lawyers could get away with spending hours analyzing data the slow way in Excel. But as the data continues to pile up, you’ll need to process data more quickly. Many law students believe there will be a “tech person” who’ll be available to analyze data that comes across their desk. If your firm is the rare outlier and actually has an on-call data tech person, they’ll be working on complex data processing requests, and the average lawyer’s request will likely take a back seat.
Most Excel users deploy only a small fraction of the program’s capabilities. Spend time now to learn how to create pivot tables, use Excel functions, and convert data from text to Excel. The ability to take a large amount of data, convert it to a usable form, and analyze it quickly will be paramount. Spend the time learning these skills now, not 15 minutes before an important deadline. Like everything else, you can learn them by watching videos on YouTube.
Noticed a common thread of advice among these tips? To practice competently and well, you’ll need to understand more technology than today’s average lawyer does. The sooner you get started on building your tech skills, the more you’ll stand out from the thousands of other law students nationwide seeking the best jobs and the most challenging clients.