Technology Competency: Lessons across the Ages

By Robert L. Blacksberg, Esq. on June 16, 2017
Robert L. Blacksberg, Esq.

Bob’s experience spans more than two decades of technology leadership for lawyers, following a law practice that included partnerships at two Philadelphia law firms. Bob is principal of Blacksberg Associates, LLC and leads engagements with law firms in strategic technology planning and implementation, creates and delivers CLE training programs, and works with leading technology vendors to explain, promote and train leading-edge technology products for lawyers. An author and speaker, Bob has appeared at the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) conference and on ILTA Roadshows. His column, “The Word of Law” appeared in Woody’s Office Watch and helped establish standards for best use of Microsoft Word and protection against the risks of metadata. He can be found on Twitter at @rblacksberg and on his website.

In recent years, lawyers and their staff have been challenged over their basic technology competency and proficiency. Credit is due to Casey Flaherty for pursuing this issue vigorously. He has asserted that lawyers should be competent in the use of Microsoft Word, Excel and Outlook as the basic tools of their trade. His Legal Technology Assessment scores these technology skills by measuring lawyers’ ability to perform specified tasks.

Measured by these assessments, the assessment may miss two important aspects:

  • the variety of learning styles and capabilities among lawyers
  • the duty of software vendors, technology staff, and trainers to design, acquire, and implement technologies that work effectively and productively for their full range of users

I suggest there are four kinds of technology users. I borrow from one of the central instruction manuals in my life, the Haggadah, used each spring on Passover to teach the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah recites the Bible’s command to parents to instruct their children. It describes four kinds of children: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. For each, the Haggadah describes the questions the child asks and the way a parent should answer.

With this inspiration, the four kinds of technology users could be:

  • Committed and Curious
  • Reluctant and Resistant
  • Cookbook
  • Uninformed or Afraid

The Committed and Curious ask “What does this technology do for us? How can I use it to improve the quality, efficiency, and productivity of my work together with that of my colleagues?”

Committed and Curious users deserve to be empowered fully by their technology. They can and should serve as models for their colleagues and often are called upon as informal technical support. Because they are often successful in their use and perhaps raise fewer problems, they may get attention less than others. Technologists have much to learn from Committed and Curious users. They are likely to find issues to be solved, and their personal solutions may help others.

The Reluctant and Resistant ask, “Why should I use this technology? I have perfectly good ways to do my work, and the (new) technology will only burden me.”

The Reluctant and Resistant users see the issues with technology as only affecting themselves, not as an approach shared with their colleagues.

Technologists are most challenged by the Reluctant and Resistant users, especially when they rank at the top of the practice or business hierarchy of their organizations. Technologists owe them an honest interaction, one that respects their reluctance and gives credence to their classic or traditional methods of work. Their avoidance of a technology may be exposing a fault or an overlooked requirement.

The Cookbook users ask “What is this technology? There’s much more than I need. Just show me (exactly) what to do and I will do my work.”

Cookbook users work best with tasks that are precisely defined, and tools and techniques that have been well-crafted and refined. Law practice, though, frequently requires solving new problems and finding hidden content and relationships. It especially requires thorough and careful performance and checking of all tasks—whether creating, writing, formatting, proofreading and filing documents, or finding, organizing, and presenting information. Cookbook users need not only the formula way to perform a task, but to be reinforced and rewarded when they solve novel issues.

The Uninformed or Afraid fail to even ask a question.

These users deserve guidance that respects where they are, shows them how to change, and reinforces their use in steps small enough to promote success, engage them, and overcome their fears. Coaching them to ask the questions is the first step.

Those responsible for creating, deploying, maintaining, and training technology have an obligation to recognize the various kinds of users and tailor their programs and methods to work for each of them. A universal testing and assessment won’t take these varied approaches into account, and while a useful start, a new method to promote competency in legal technology is needed.

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