Part one of a two-part blog series with John Attinger, Senior Director, Technology Adoption, exploring the challenge of training lawyers to meet contemporary competency expectations.

For people of a certain age, the well-dressed professional posed in front of a wall of legal texts was an indelible image. It showed that an attorney’s competency was tied to their grasp of the mysterious codes and cases in those matching-binding books.

In some instances, proficiency in those texts is still the measure of the jurist, but for many, contemporary lawyering has evolved into something more complex and multi-disciplined. It now requires not only mastery of the law but successful interactions and deployments of multiple practice tools and a firm grip on the innovative use of people, processes, and technology.

These changes beg the question if the ‘well-trained’ lawyer of the last century was measured by their knowledge and the ability to use it for their clients’ legal needs, what more must define the ‘well-trained’ lawyer of this century? And if that definition has changed, and it truly has, how does that challenge the internal professional development (PD) departments of today’s firms?

Defining baseline competence

Some context is helpful for a meaningful discussion of this topic. There are polar extremes in how lawyers use technology. At one end are ‘more experienced’ lawyers who, while not Luddites, are simply not going to embrace too much technology and will rely on the support of their associates to carry the load. On the other end are lawyers who bring a significant background in technology to their legal practice and are capable of coding apps and solutions to enable their practice.

When talking about today’s ‘well-trained’ lawyers in the context of this blog, we are focusing on the mean between those two ends. We are talking about the essential knowledge and skills required for a lawyer to meaningfully engage around legal innovation and technology and actively participate in that journey. They not only identify opportunities but adopt solutions.

These lawyers are prepared and able to adopt new ideas and technologies and help their firm maximize the value of their technology investments, whether those investments be practice-enabling tools, research tools, collaboration tools, or the systems used to manage the operational lifecycle of the firm and its clients’ engagements.

A case in point

The necessary toolbox for the ‘well-trained’ lawyer can be illustrated through technology-enabled touchpoints in the lifecycle of a contract production for a merger transaction.

  • Proposal and budget numbers for the engagement are extracted from the firm’s financial system, and the analysis of strategic data stored from prior engagements.
  • Legal team members for the engagement may be selected using the firm’s experience database.
  • Legal team sets up a collaboration portal to track the transaction and share documents and tasks with the client and other parties. The portal manages work on the engagement and tracks budgets and deadlines, and requires direct engagement and inputs from the lawyers on the engagement.
  • Initial drafts of documents are built using contract clauses extracted from prior agreements using artificial intelligence/machine learning tools and stored in a knowledge base. Sometimes, the tools may be used to create the entire first draft.
  • Contract drafts are run through software to identify internal inconsistencies and support consistent style and language.
  • Signatures are enabled using a digital signature tool that tracks and collects all required signatures.
  • Closing binders are prepared, assembled and distributed using a digital tool.
  • Time entry, billing and engagement data are collected in financial systems and directly input by the lawyers for billing and to preserve data for future engagements.

These steps are enabled by technologies frequently found within the technology stacks of most AMLAW200 law firms. However, the adoption of many of these tools remains limited or at least inconsistent, and these transactions are often executed using manual processes and the traditional model.

The art of active upskilling

Defining the ‘well-trained’ 21st-century lawyer is not just a philosophical exercise; it is essential in identifying, adopting, and using practical legal innovation in the law firm.

Legal innovation had a bumpy ride in its early iterations. However, experience shows that early failures were caused by internal legal innovation professionals working outside the attorney workflow and then attempting to deploy innovation into the practices. Therein lies a potential boneyard of expensive and well-intentioned innovation efforts that succeed through all stages of development and then fail in adoption and maximized ROI.

Legal innovation cannot happen to lawyers, driven by the efforts of legal innovation professionals working within the firm’s operational silos. Instead, it must happen through lawyers who have been enabled in their professional development journey to work alongside those innovation professionals to deliver a better client experience and more value to the firm.

Lawyers with skills to participate in legal innovation—be it identifying the business pain, evaluating solutions, or adopting them in their practice—need to become the rule, not the exception. Firms need to become active in the upskilling of their lawyers to be fuller participants in that innovation process, which may require the engagement of strategic partners to support and supplement the PD function within the firm.

Stay tuned for part two, where we will explain Wilson Allen’s partnering philosophy that helps firms to upskill and improve legal technology adoption within their ranks.