The impact of technology on collaboration in law firms – don’t forget the humans

The impact of technology on collaboration in law firms – don’t forget the humans

Part 1 of the great debate over technology, editors Mark and Catherine weigh up the pros and cons of technology on collaboration in a rapidly changing legal landscape.  

It’s easy to get swept up in the enthusiasm of technology evangelists. Technology will accelerate, streamline, empower…the list goes on. And it also easy to have people like me writing about avoiding the hype, and being cautious of net productivity results. But where does the answer lie? Is technology all it’s cracked up to be? In the spirit of an adversarial legal system, my colleague and I are going to argue the toss on how technology impacts collaboration in law firms. Her piece can be read here. Mine’s below. You be the judge.

Framing the argument

In law firms and in-house legal teams, we can consider two ways of approaching and understanding collaboration:

  • the internal collaboration with colleagues; and
  • the external collaboration with clients and/or suppliers.

In each of these two instances, collaboration is about working jointly on a project or to achieve a specific goal. It’s in this context, that I’m going to argue that technology brings dangers and challenges that legal professionals should be careful to avoid.

It’s OK, I checked on Google

One of the most important attributes of a lawyer is being able to perform thorough, precise and trustworthy research. When I worked as a junior lawyer, much of my time was spent reading case law, journals and practical guidance to provide my seniors with a reliable basis to offer advice to our clients. And I was grateful for technology to enable me to research massive volumes of information from my desk. The double-edged sword of having access to huge amount of information is that not all of it is reliable or relevant.  And if you begin to rely on Google, you are ultimately relying on untrusted sources; the popularisation of Wikipedia as a source of reliable information puts paid to the notion that digital search engines know best.  In fact, the value of lawyers is often ensuring the research behind an answer is correct – an over-reliance on Google could jeopardise this skill and leave talented advocates open to the perils of “fake news”.

There is a time in the career of many legal professionals - myself included - where we will use Google to find an answer. While many argue it’s not a terrible starting point, it absolutely cannot finish there. If you draw analogies with medical profession, it’s clear why that would be a problem - how often do we self-diagnose to find out that, our rare tropical infection is actually a spate of digitally induced hypochondria…. Further, if you’re a senior lawyer relying on your junior to provide the best research, something taken from Google or Bing is not going to make your day. And while they will never say so, often the pressure of deadlines could lead them down that path – a path which is usually obvious to critical eye of senior practitioners. This is worse still if you’re a client, paying handsomely for trustworthy advice that is cribbed from Google.

A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing

I’m certainly guilty of this when I go to the doctors, arriving with some half-baked theory of an ailment I might have but almost definitely do not. And I’ve often thought this must be a frustrating experience for doctors and nurses. Similarly, clients (courtesy of internet search engines) are arriving to their legal advisers with theories on what might be best course of action. This is a new form of “collaboration” that might be less helpful than it might seem. It’s never the best start to an engagement to begin by dismissing an idea from your client but good legal training might compel you to do so. Trusted relationships developed “offline” are essential.

Let me mentor you…from a distance

The reason I titled my piece “don’t forget the humans” is that one of the counter-intuitive challenges presented by technology is the tendency to reduce human interaction – opposite to the promise of greater connection. In days gone by, the mentorship provided by senior practitioners to trainees and juniors was an invaluable, indeed essential, part of the profession. While mentoring still happens, one wonders if it has been impoverished by the pervasion of introductory videos, online seminars and other digital experiences, over more personal, human interaction.

Are senior practitioners streamlining their time so much that the next generation of lawyers will not experience the full training their predecessors enjoyed? When you charge by the billable hour and technology can remove some of the non-billable work (such as work shadowing), will the short term commercial pressures outweigh the longer-term discipline of the profession?

Fragility and currency of documents

While paper documents even in Dickens' time could be erased or destroyed by accident, the opportunity for corruption, destruction and theft of confidential and/or commercial sensitive documents has increase manifold because of technology. This introduces a new element of susceptibility when collaborating with your colleagues. Added to this, when you collaborate with your colleagues from the past, there is another danger of poor “handover” and invalidity. When it may have been a senior handing your files and explaining the nuances to consider, now you just need to search for a precedent and it arrives instantly. Potentially sans context.

So, I submit to you the above arguments. When considering the impact of technology on collaboration in law firms – don’t forget the humans.

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About the author:
Mark is one of the Dispute Resolution blog’s technical editors. He qualified as a lawyer in Australia and worked in private practice before joining LexisNexis. In addition to contributing to the Dispute Resolution blog, he also writes for a number of LexisNexis blogs, including the Future of Law blog.