Tech Skills for Lawyers: What are Employers Looking For?

As is the case in most industries, technology has forever changed the legal profession, requiring new skillsets and bases of knowledge, many of which simply didn’t exist a generation ago.

This has put added emphasis among attorneys for the need to sharpen their skills when it comes to the common technologies in use in the profession today. These days, it’s not just a nice bonus to be proficient in technology, as of 2012, it’s actually part of the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct:

Maintaining Competence

[8]  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, engage in continuing study and education and comply with all continuing legal education requirements to which the lawyer is subject.

Even basic tech skills like effective email management, calendaring, and Microsoft Office Suite applications like Word, Excel and Outlook can make an attorney considerably more efficient, but in general, lawyers today are “woefully deficient” in using such programs, Casey Flaherty, corporate counsel for Kia Motors wrote in ABA Journal.

In 2012, Flaherty developed a basic technology competency audit which he sent to outside law firms working with the automaker. The results were less than stellar, with the best-performing firm audited completing the test in 2.5 hours, compared to 30 minutes for Flaherty himself.

The tech skills prized most by prospective employers today aren’t all heady, cutting-edge tools like machine learning, big data analytics and artificial intelligence, some of it comes down to leveraging the most common, widely available tools that make a nimbler, more efficient lawyer. 

Communication

We’re living in the Age of Communication, with more ways than ever imagined to keep in touch, irrespective of geographic constraints. The days of a landline phone being the primary means of contact with clients or fellow associates are long gone. First in line to replace phones was email, predominantly accessed through Microsoft Outlook or Gmail. More recently, text messaging and enterprise chat applications like Slack have gained a foothold in both internal and external communication. Today’s employers are looking for lawyers skilled in a variety of communication channels. Effectively managing your inbox and appointments is an important discipline to staying organized and on task. There are inbox management tools or Outlook plug-ins widely available for coping with the daily deluge of messages, so learning one (or more) of those can help cut through the clutter.

No conversation on communication would be complete without mentioning social media, which has seen increased use by lawyers in recent years. According to a survey by AttorneyAtWork, 70% of lawyers say social media is part of their overall marketing strategy, an increase of 10% since 2015. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter remain the Big 3 platforms used by attorneys, so if you aren’t at least familiar with these platforms, it may be time to educate yourself.

Collaboration

Having ready access to client data, communication tools, e-discovery documents and more in the cloud has empowered lawyers to bring their entire office with them anywhere they go, and better serve their clients with every relevant document or filing available at their fingertips. Being able to effectively utilize these cloud-based tools is an important differentiator for lawyers.

Shared calendars are another collaborative platform seeing heavy use by law firms, with applications like Apple’s Calendar and Google Calendar giving associates an at-a-glance tool for keeping track of appointments, meetings, court dates and deadlines. A firm-wide calendar will be viewable by everybody, and all edits will be seen by the group, mastering these applications is critical for effective scheduling.

Document Processing

A key component to staying organized as an attorney is properly managing the copious amounts of documents that flow through the typical legal office, and there are smart, simple habits to develop using existing tools like Word that can simplify the process. Even something as simple as a unified file name convention, for example, “John Smith ediscovery1 (May 2017)” can keep documents organized and searchable whether locally stored or kept on a secure cloud server. 

How a document gets formatted can vary from state to state, county to county, or even court to court. Incorrect formatting, or delays in submitting documents due to lack of formatting proficiency, can result in negative outcomes for your case. Many firms deploy a “macro” package that automatically fills in fields for common legal documents. These templates can be pre-programmed and customized to comport with specific jurisdictions’ formatting rules, eliminating the chance of a costly error on a technicality.

Basic Keyboard Shortcuts

Believe it or not, keyboard shortcut keys for copy-pasting, selecting portions of text, saving documents or switching between applications are not universally known, even by lawyers. Becoming familiar with these and other commonly used keyboard shortcuts saves time on administrative tasks and makes employees more efficient with their computers and operating systems. Typewriters fell out of favor for a reason, so learn and use those shortcuts!

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