Emphasizing Tech and Social Media at the Expense of the Fundamentals?

I recently followed tweets about American Bar Association’s “TechShow” on Twitter.

One thing that bothered me about the content of the presentations was the glaring lack of emphasis on fundamentals. There was a lot of talk about how technology is changing the legal profession and how technology can be used to better deliver service and value to clients, etc. Technology can “transform your practice.” (Oh, and technology is changing the marketing landscape too.) It would have been great for just one presenter to highlight the fact that all of the tech stuff at the techshow are just extras, or at least emphatically make the point that learning the fundamentals is equally as important (if not more so) as being exposed to the stuff that was being emphasized at “Techshow”.

The message a young lawyer may take away from this (I’m assuming young lawyers attend these events, but maybe I’m wrong?) is that if you learn the tech and keep abreast of these technological developments (if you’re an “early adopter”) you are good to go. We’re painting a picture that you can jump past the nuts and bolts of lawyering and focus on things like technology, social media etc. Heck, when the iPad comes out, if you can figure out how to use it, you’ll have the whole lawyering thing covered. And better yet, you’ll have one up on all those lawyers who don’t know how to use an iPad (“game changer” that the iPad will be). And this message is being reinforced by the content of presentations at events like techshow and the show itself. We see statistics thrown around like X% of all Americans access social media once a day and people spend X hours a day accessing social media. All jurors are on social media 24/7. All clients and potential clients are on social media. So what? If you don’t learn the fundamentals of lawyering – assessing your client’s issue, figuring out what they want to accomplish, and above all, figuring out how to achieve the result within the legal system – you may as well go home. All of Susskind’s pontifications aside, the core of lawyering (at least in an adversarial setting) will never evolve away from understanding and digesting the law, having solid writing skills, and engaging in advocacy in front of a factfinder or tribunal. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it will. But the day it does, I’ll happily pack my bags and finally open up that restaurant that I’ve mused about over the years.

I realize the focus of the show is on technology in the legal profession so you can expect the focus to be on technology, but I’m still bothered by the lack of mention of the fundamentals. I think it’s a disservice to young lawyers who may be attending or following along. Given that the ABA is putting on the event I would think this would be a concern to them? It’s a lot tougher to learn the fundamentals than it is to learn the tech/social media stuff. The ABA should emphasize that in the early years, we should be spending much more time and energy learning the fundamentals.

Marshall Isaacs has a post (“Demise of the Civil Litigator”) that laments the “noticeable decline in the skill level of New York civil litigation attorneys.” This is probably attributable to many different things (including the economic climate), but I wonder if at least part of this is attributable to the fact that younger lawyers are starting to focus on tech and other things rather than the fundamentals?

I wonder if other professions are experiencing a similar dynamic. Many other professions – from photography to journalism – are under severe economic pressure. And the solution that’s thrown around always seems to be “technology and social media is the answer.” I wonder if any downsides of this shift in focus away from fundamentals are becoming noticeable in other areas?

More: from Brian Tannebaum here (“Watching Law Ignite Into Flames”), Scott Greenfield here (“Conspiracy to Commit Wire Fraud”), and the Trial Warrior Blog here (“Star Trek, Social Media and Legal Ethics”).

[I should add that I’m a huge fan of changes in the legal profession wrought by technology. But for me, this is a minimal part of the actual practice of law. I’m a beneficiary of the changes. I think we all are. Brian is. I bet Scott is. All of the lawyers who are viewed as railing against this trend are all bloggers and lawyers who use technology to their benefit. That’s the odd part of all this. I don’t think many people need evangelizing. I may be biased because I’m Seattle based, and entered the profession in the mid-late 90s, but by and large, 90% of the lawyers I know view technology as a good thing and use it to their benefit. The lawyers I know have always embraced it.]

A response: from Carolyn Elefant here. Worth reading.

Posted by Venkat at 3/24/2010 6:34 PM
Categories: Lawyering

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3/30/2010 9:46 AM shg wrote:
Excellent post, Venkat. This isn’t about being anti-tech, but pro good lawyering. Technology is not a substitute for competency. Good lawyers can make good use of tech, but being a good lawyer, the fundamentals as you call it, are the foundation upon which the use of tech is built.

As for marketing, which was presented at the ABA TechShow as if ethical constraints no longer apply, the problem is even more severe. Marketing is not a substitute for quality lawyering, and when one sheds dignity and integrity to shill for a case at any cost, even competency cannot overcome the harm a lawyer does to himself and the profession.
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4/1/2010 6:51 AM Venkat wrote:
Thanks for the comment, I think that’s a great way of putting it (not anti-tech, but pro good lawyering).
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3/30/2010 10:45 AM William Carleton wrote:
Venkat, my perception is that it’s the middle aged lawyers (not the old ones, not the young ones) that hit social media with the most relish, at least professionally. Not the case?
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3/30/2010 11:09 AM William Carleton wrote:
I should add, “present company exclude, of course!” 🙂
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3/30/2010 11:19 AM Don Cruse wrote:
Fundamentals of what?

I saw Matt Homann’s program online when it aired. If anything, the crowd was interested in how the business of law is changing and how they might adapt. Sure, technology was a central theme of the talks — it was, after all, Tech Show. But most of the talks I watched had a business focus. (Like one of the speakers, I wish the ABA required “fundamentals of the law business” to be taught by accredited schools.)

I was also impressed at the format. I wish more legal conferences limited each speaker to six minutes.

The comparison you make to journalism deserves some more thought; the professions are under different pressures. But perhaps we can learn something by watching traditional journalism struggle to adapt to the rise of mass amateurism.
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4/1/2010 7:03 AM Venkat wrote:
Thanks for the comments!

William: that’s a great question/point. The younger lawyers aren’t as quick to embrace social media, and that’s sort of fits with my point. If they decide to, they can figure it out pretty easily.

Todd: My comments aren’t focused on IgniteLaw. (I like reading Matt’s stuff and credit his initiative and drive.) I followed some of #techshow on Twitter.

I guess my reaction is just a bubbling up of what I’ve felt over the past year. Maybe I need to get off Twitter!
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4/2/2010 1:50 PM Carey wrote:
Venkat, interesting perspective. I attended my first TechShow last week. I’m not an attorney, but a provider of legal technology to the industry. I could not agree more that an attorney should focus on fundamentals, and one with the fundamentals can make better use of technology than one who lacks them. I was surprised at how few attorneys attend a conference like this, especially given the impact and opportunity of technology to help lawyers do more of what they love – practicing law. I think attendance is in the hundreds, in a country with over a million attorneys. Embracing and using technology is a very broad concept – as you cite, could mean the iPad or just finally using email – and the sources of advice and ideas vary widely in their credibility. The noise level is high, so it is completely understandable to see your frustration, as well as the misguided advice to the “young attorneys” out there. A lot of this practice education should come at law schools, but my assessment is that it is sort of like the topic of Sales at business schools – it’s too real world and not intellectual or research-oriented enough to warrant appropriate coverage. An interesting discussion topic regardless – thanks again for spurring this debate.
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