Bits & Bytes: Lawyers challenged to take a basic technology competency audit

While there’s widespread concern about the pace at which the legal sector is embracing technology, it’s hard for people to really know if a law firm is using it efficiently or if it’s just marginally better at it than the competition.

A technology audit is a tool to test firms on their ability to use technology to perform basic tasks related to handling electronic documents. My firm, Aluvion Law, structures itself as a modern, efficient, and technologically savvy practice, and the lessons we learned when we took the audit say a lot about not just how to run a law firm but also how to run any office more efficiently.

Casey Flaherty, legal council for Kia Motors America Inc., helped popularize the concept of the technology audit last year. Flaherty created and conducted an informal audit of outside law firms. The goal was to see how efficiently legal professionals could perform basic tasks in software like Microsoft Excel and Word. The results were probably not surprising: When it came to navigating spreadsheets and formatting documents, most associates used brute force to perform the tasks, an approach that can sometimes make a 30-second job take a half hour.

While no one would accuse lawyers at the nine firms that failed the audit of deliberately charging clients for hours wasted on ineffectively formatting a document, the likely outcome was much less dramatic given the dozens of tasks each week quietly requiring an extra five or 10 minutes each.

Those lost minutes add up and hurt everyone in the long run. But solving the problem isn't easy. Lawyers, who would choose the faster way if they knew it existed, don’t always see the inefficiencies and clients have no good way of gauging whether preparing a factum should take 75 or 80 minutes. Because of the billable-hours model, most lawyers lack a strong incentive to scrutinize why a task took a specific length of time.

Even in my office, where flat-rate billing means we do have an incentive to save time on client work, the prospect of pressuring legal professionals to complete assignments in 20 minutes instead of 25 just seemed like a recipe for having people cut corners on due diligence. So it was with hesitation that Aluvion took some time on a quieter Friday and conducted our first internal technology audit.

What happens when you undertake such an effort with a bunch of technologically savvy legal professionals who spend a lot of time working with document automation? We found two things: a marginal fail rate and a lot of discussion about the design of the test. For us, the audit wasn’t a good internal ranking of who in our office was most efficient or even a tool to flag people who needed help.

Instead, the audit was a great tool for sparking a conversation in our office about focusing on efficiency and being willing to spend the 15 minutes it takes to learn a skill that will save you the 30 seconds every time you do a task. It offered the opportunity to discuss shortcut keys, formatting tricks, workflows, and applications and refocused our workplace on making sure we got everything done. More importantly, it got us thinking about our use of technology and ensuring we took the time to get everything done the smart way. If you’re a legal practitioner, I challenge you to take the test and share your results.

Monica Goyal is a lawyer and technology entrepreneur. She’s the founder of My Legal Briefcase and Simply Small Claims. You can follow her on twitter at @monicangoyal.

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