Do lawyers need to be digitally competent?

Reblogged from Legal Web Watch November 2014.

I ask this because I have been looking into the future for CPD in the two professions. Both are moving away from measuring CPD hours towards systems based on self-certified continuing competence.

The SRA is more advanced and has issued a Draft Competence Statement for consultation with a view to implementing the new regime (on a voluntary basis initially) in April 2015.

The SRA believe that there are a number of core activities relating to matters such as ethical behaviour, technical skills (drafting, negotiating, researching), management of work (planning, prioritising, record keeping) and working and communicating with other people that all solicitors should be able to undertake competently. How these qualities are demonstrated will vary according to practice area and experience but all competent solicitors should possess them.

Apparently those who took part in research for the SRA have given the draft competence statement high marks: 87 per cent of solicitors, 87 per cent of consumers and 90 per cent of businesses giving it between seven and 10 out of 10.

Really? This is essentially a list of 91 things solicitors ought to be able to do – and I would not disagree with any of them – but with no indication how to translate these into an implementable and reviewable training programme.

In relation to these activities there are multiple uses of the adjectives “appropriate” (18), “effective” (19) and “relevant” (13). Well, what is appropriate? what is effective? what is relevant to a particular activity?

At the same time I find not a single reference to the words “internet”, “technology” or “digital”. Surely this can’t be so when several of the categories of competence – legal research, case management, record-keeping, communications – are areas where technology is absolutely key and the internet is the medium through which the solicitor will undertake these activities.

And how do solicitors deliver their services? The Legal Education and Training Review, in its 2013 report The Future of Legal Services Education and Training Regulation in England and Wales, noted that, overall, only about 42 per cent of legal services were delivered face-to-face in 2011–12, whereas another 40 per cent were supplied by telephone or email/internet.

As legal practice futurologist Jordan Furlong pointed out (as long ago as 2008):

Lawyers have grown accustomed to going unchallenged on their technological backwardness, and even tech-savvy new lawyers eventually succumb to firms’ glacial pace of tech adaptation. Here is a fact: technological affinity is a core competence of lawyering. If you can’t effectively and efficiently use e-mail, the Internet, and mobile telephony, you might as well just stay home. And if you don’t care to learn about RSS, instant messaging, Adobe Acrobat and the like, clients and colleagues will pass you by.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the SRA should list technological competencies, but surely this statement should at least acknowledge technology and the internet’s existence, let alone its importance to the modern lawyer?

The Bar Standards Board will shortly launch its own “professional statement”which will attempt to describe the knowledge and skills barristers should possess.

Image by Juan Cristóbal Cobo on Flickr.

4 thoughts on “Do lawyers need to be digitally competent?

  1. Nick — I participated in a couple of the workshops that contributed towards this competency statement, although I had to drop out before the final version was compiled. Obviously I don’t speak for the SRA, but I hope I can shed some light anyway.

    The purpose of the competence statement, as I understood it, was to ensure that there was a basic standard to which solicitors could be held. That means two things in my mind — it should state the things that solicitors should do which are particularly important for professional standards (possibly distinct from general business practice) and it should not limit the ways in which the standard can be achieved or demonstrated.

    For me, engagement with technology is now a core business requirement for any profession or trade, and so it would be otiose to include it in a standard for one profession. To use the language of the statement, ‘appropriateness’ or ‘effectiveness’ demands an understanding of the tools used (especially when those tools are dictated by clients. Any solicitor who fails to do this will go out of business — it is not the job of the competence statement to keep them in business, unless they fail to meet basic standards of ethics, practice management, legal competence and client care.

  2. Mark

    Thanks for the clarification. So it is about holding solicitors to account rather than helping them achieve competence? As I said, I would not disagree with anything in the list, but it’s not very helpful.

  3. As an old and well established profession, Law has, generally speaking been very slow to embrace the developing technology of the past 15 – 20 years. Surely this is in part because of the average age of the senior people within the legal sector, many of which I suspect are not keen on changing after spending many years of using traditional processes.

  4. Interesting article.
    Lawyers could “team up” with organisations like us who have the technical skills and infrastructure but lack the legal knowledge.

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