The March sessions of Legalweek took place recently, and as with the February sessions, the virtual event struck a chord that reverberated deep from within the heart of a (hopefully) receding pandemic. However, the discussions this time around focused much less on the logistics of working in a virtual environment and much more on getting back to the business of law. One theme, in particular, stood out from those discussions – the idea that legal professionals will need to have a grasp on the technology that is driving our new world forward, post-pandemic.
In other words, the days when attorneys somewhat-braggingly painted a picture of themselves as Luddites holed up in cobwebbed libraries are quickly coming to an end. We live in an increasingly digital world – one where our professional communications are taking place almost exclusively on digital platforms. That means each of us (and our organizations and law firms) are generating more data than we know what to do with. That trend will only grow in the future, and attorneys that are unwilling to accept that fact may find themselves entombed within those dusty libraries.
Fortunately, despite our reputation as being slow to adapt, legal professionals are actually an innovative, flexible bunch. Whether a matter requires us to develop expertise in a specific area of the medical field, learn more about a niche topic in the construction industry, or delve into some esoteric insurance provision – we dive in and become laymen experts so that we can effectively advocate for our clients and companies. Thus, there is no doubt that we can and will evolve in a post-pandemic world. However, if anyone out there is still on the fence, below are four key reasons why attorneys will need to become tech savvy, or at least knowledgeable enough to understand when to call in technical expertise.
- Technological Competence is Imposed by Ethics and Evidence Rules
First and foremost, attorneys have an ethical duty (under ABA Model Rule 1.1) to “keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risk associated with relevant technology.” Thirty seven states have adopted this language within their own attorney ethics rules. Thus, just as we have a duty to continue our legal education each year to stay abreast of changes in law, we also have an ethical duty to continue to educate ourselves on the technology that is relevant to our practice.
We also have a duty to preserve and produce relevant electronically stored information (ESI) (under both the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP), as well as the ABA model ethics rules) during civil litigation. To do so, attorneys must understand (or work with someone who understands) where their client’s or company’s relevant ESI evidence is, how to preserve it, how to collect it, and how to produce it. This means preserving and producing not only the documents themselves but also the metadata (i.e., the information about the data itself, including when it was generated and edited, who created it, etc.). This overall process grows more complicated with each passing year, as companies migrate to the unlimited storage opportunities of the Cloud and employees increasingly communicate through cloud-based collaboration platforms. Working within the Cloud has a myriad of benefits, but it can make it more difficult for attorneys to understand where their client’s or company’s relevant information might be stored, as well as harder to ensure metadata is preserved correctly.
Together, these rules and obligations mean that whether we are practicing law within a firm or as in-house counsel at an organization, we have a duty to understand the basics of the technology our clients are using to communicate so that at the very least, we will know when to call in technical experts to meet the ethical and legal obligations we owe to those we counsel.
- Data Protection and Data Privacy is Becoming Increasingly Important
The data privacy landscape is becoming a tapestry of conflicting laws and regulations in which companies are currently navigating as best they can. Within the United States alone, there were a multitude of state and local laws regulating personal data that came into effect or were introduced in 2020. For companies that have a global footprint, the worldwide data protection landscape is even more complicated – from the invalidation of the EU-US privacy shield to new laws and modifications of data protection laws across the Americas and Asia Pacific countries. It will not be long before most companies, no matter their location, will need to ensure that they are abiding within the constructs of multiple jurisdictional data privacy laws.
This means that attorneys who represent those companies will need to understand not only where personal data is located within the company, but also how the company is processing that data, how (and if) that data is being transmitted across borders, when (and if) it needs to be deleted, the process for effectively deleting it, etc., etc. To do so, attorneys must also have at least some understanding of the technology platforms their companies and clients are using, as well as how data is stored and transferred within those platforms, to ensure they are not advertently running afoul of data privacy laws.
As far as data protection, attorneys need to understand how to proactively protect and safeguard their clients’ data. There have been multiple high-profile data breaches in the last few months,and law firms and companies that routinely house personal data are often the target of those breaches. Protecting client data requires attorneys to have a semblance of understanding of where client data is and how to protect it properly, including knowing when and how to hire experts who can best offer the right level of protection.
- Internal Compliance is Becoming More Technologically Complicated
There has been a lot of interest recently in using artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics technology to monitor internal compliance within companies. This is in part due to the massive amount of data that compliance teams now need to comb through to detect inappropriate or illegal employee conduct. From monitoring departing employees to ensure they aren’t walking out the door with valuable trade secret information, to monitoring digital interactions to ensure a safe work environment for all employees – companies are looking to leverage advances in technology to more quickly and accurately spot irregularities and anomalies within company data that may indicate employee malfeasance.
Not only will this type of monitoring require an understanding of analytics and AI technology, but it will also require grasping the intricacies of the company’s data infrastructure. Compliance and legal teams will need to understand the technology platforms in place within their organization, where employees are creating data within those platforms, as well as how employees interact with each other within them.
- The Ability to Explain Technology Makes Us Better Advocates
Finally, it is important to note that the ability to understand and explain the technology we are using makes us better and more effective advocates. For example, within the ediscovery space, it can be incredibly important for our clients’ budgets and case outcomes to attain court acceptance of AI and machine-learning technology that can drastically limit the volume of data requiring expensive and tedious human review. To do so, attorneys often must first be able to get buy-in from their own clients, who may not be well versed in ediscovery technology. Once clients are on-board, attorneys must then educate courts and opposing counsel about the technology in order to gain approval and acceptance.
In other words, to prove that the methods we want to use (whether those methods relate to document preservation and collection, data protection, compliance workflows, or ediscovery reviews) are defensible and repeatable, attorneys must be able to explain the technology behind those methods. And as in all areas of law, the most successful attorneys are ones who can take a very complicated, technical subject and break it down in a way that clients, opposing counsel, judges, and juries can understand (or alternatively are knowledgeable enough about the technology to know when it is necessary to bring experts in to help make their case).
Best Practices for Staying Abreast of Technology
- Reach out to technology providers to ask for training and tips when needed. When evaluating providers, look for those that offer ongoing training and support.
- For attorneys working as in-house counsel, work to build healthy partnerships with compliance, IT, and data privacy teams. Being able to ask questions and learn from each other will help head off technology issues for your company.
- For attorneys working within law firms, work to understand your clients’ data infrastructure or layout. This may mean talking to their IT, legal, and compliance teams so that you can ensure you are up to date on changes and processes that affect your ability to advocate effectively for your client.
- Look for CLEs, trainings, and vendor offerings that are specific to the technology you and your clients use regularly. Remember that cloud-based technology, in particular, changes and updates often. It is important to stay on top of the most recent changes to ensure you can effectively advocate for your clients.
- Recognize when you need help. Attorneys don’t need to be technological wizards in order to practice law, however, you will need to know when to call in experts…and that will require a baseline understanding of the technology at issue.
 ABA Model Rule 3.4, FRCP 37(e) and FRCP 26)