Time to remove the anti-IT culture

In 1990, I visited the Washington office of a law firm widely recognised to be one of the most advanced and committed users of IT in the US legal community.

The director of IT talked a lot about the culture that had been engendered within the firm. Here was an atmosphere in which IT could flourish. By way of illustration, she recalled a telephone conversation with a recruit fresh from law school. That person had called to say there seemed to have been some kind of mistake because there was no machine on his desk on his arrival.

I reflected, with some irony, that in the UK it would be more likely that a fresh trainee solicitor would contact the computer support department to indicate that there had been an error only if a machine was on his desk on his arrival.

Here, no doubt, even five years on, is one reason why the US legal profession may have years of strategic competitive advantage over UK lawyers – their students are more comfortable with IT. And practising attorneys have embraced IT far more widely than UK lawyers.

It is said that more than 80 per cent of US law students have their own machines. But I would guess that fewer than 5 per cent of British undergraduates have computers they could call their own.

So, although it is commonly thought that the lack of IT uptake by UK lawyers is only a short-term concern, this is almost certainly not so. In fact, few law schools in universities and law schools in the UK provide adequate encouragement and training in IT today and even those that do are often regarded as idiosyncratic, hobbyist or indulgent.

If the administration of law is to be improved and changed through technology, it is axiomatic that lawyers should have a deeper appreciation of IT, gained throughout their careers from a blend of education, and training.

Although each phase in a legal career requires and deserves a different educational perspective and approach to IT, there is a fundamental theme common to all phases, and it relates to the temptation to treat IT as a distinct discipline.

There are many ways in which law students and legal practitioners can learn about IT: for example, by relatively formal, conventional education; by on-the job training; or through awareness-raising exercises. Whichever method is chosen, IT shouldn't be regarded as a distinct discipline, taught as if it were a separate legal subject.

To hold out IT as an entirely independent field is almost as misleading as identifying reading or writing for lawyers as distinct disciplines.

Instead, if technology is to be exploited by the profession, it should be projected as something that is an integral part of the way we research the law, learn about new legal developments, advise our clients and provide them with information.

To insist on separating IT from how it is applied for the purposes of education and teaching, is at best missing the opportunity to be exposed to everyday uses of technology.

At worst, it perpetuates a legal mind-set dominated by print and paper, with technology available only for those who feel so inclined, rather than recognising it to be indispensable for the profession.

The paper-and-print mentality will have no place in a future IT-based information society. Lawyers must be trained to work digitally in a digital world or they may as well shut up shop.

It still surprises me that we cannot yet assume that younger lawyers are more enthusiastic about new technologies than their more senior colleagues.

In practice, I have found my most receptive audiences tend to be the most senior lawyers and judges. They contrast markedly with many recently qualified lawyers who are prone to be cynical and closed-minded about IT.

I hope this is a temporary phenomenon because it is probably a function of an IT-free legal education which has not prepared this emerging generation of lawyers for the information society. But, clearly, there remains some work to be done to integrate IT with legal education and training.