The most important thing that I took away from the ABA Tech Show doesn’t have anything to do with a gee-whiz gadget or gizmo that will increase productivity or help lawyers work less and earn more. Instead, what I want to share are some of the trends that have taken hold of the profession and are changing not just the form of how we do business, but the substance of how we relate to other lawyers and most importantly, our clients.
Consider social networking tools like Facebook and Linkedin. For solos, these tools help combat isolation, but they do more than that. Social networking sites help us get to know colleagues on a more personal level so we have a sense of their personality and whether they’ll be compatible with a potential referral source. Even more significantly, networking sites, in combination with listserves or Google Groups give lawyers the ability to create our own associations without having to rely on bar associations. For example, the D.C. Bar won’t even sponsor a listserve, but who cares? My co-panelist, Toby Brown, described that one associate at his firm created a Texas Lawyers Linked In group and attracted 50 members within a day or two.
The collaborative technologies championed by Dennis Kennedy and Tom Mighell also took central stage at the Tech Show, mentioned at virtually every panel that I attended (including my own). Collaborative technologies change the substantive nature of of how we deal with clients. For a long time, we lawyers viewed ourselves as masters of the case: we would simply tell clients what to do and they’d accept our advice because they didn’t know any better. We’d hold the keys to files, forcing clients to call us (and pay for .2 hours of our time) to find out about the next court date or whether a response had been filed. Collaborative technologies transform our relationship with clients, making it into more of a partnership. Clients can go to a central location to access files at their convenience and leave notes or other information for us to review. They can read background information that we provide on basic concepts and tips for preparing for a deposition or which files to gather up to facilitate preparation of a will. And best of all, clients no longer remain captive to us to keep abreast of their case; all information is available to them whenever they want. By giving clients the tools to play an active role in their case, we encourage their participation which increases the chance of a positive result.
There are other aspects of the attorney-client relation that are impacted by technology, albeit not necessarily in a positive manner. As Jordan Furlong writes, lawyers have embraced mobility but haven’t taken the necessary and simple precautions such as password protecting mobile phones and laptops to safeguard client data. Confidentiality is sacred to the attorney client relationship, so where a lawyer fails to secure client data, the lapse strikes at the very core of the relationship.
Lawyers should be thinking about embracing these changes – but doing so in a manner that allows you to set yourself apart. For example, you can tout your mobility to clients, but at the same time, let clients know about some of the precautions that your firm employs to safeguard data. Recognizing potential concerns about security makes clients realize that you’re thorough and helps reinforce their trust. And whether you serve major corporate clients or individual consumers, you should employ collaborative tools such as Basecamp or Zoho or Google doc to make information available to clients so that they can play a proactive role in their case.
Many technology tools – such as computerized legal research or practice management systems help clients because they help lawyers. But at their core, these technologies don’t change the substance of what we do, they merely automate processes like legal research or systems like paper files that we’d have in place anyway. The tools I learned about at Tech Show are truly disruptive, because they change the nature of our relationship with our bar associations, other lawyers and most of all, our clients – which is after all, what matters most.