Bridging the technological gap

Education is key in bringing senior lawyers up to speed with new technology and encouraging young lawyers to use it responsibly

An inevitable generational shift in workplaces everywhere has already begun. The much-talked-about passing of the torch from the retiring baby boomer generation (people born from about 1946 to 1964) to the Generation Xers (1965 to 1979) and Generation Y or Millennials (1980 to 2000) is evident in most every legal department.

Millennials are quickly becoming the largest working population in the nation and are on the verge of becoming the most populous age group in offices. Generation X isn’t as large a population nationwide as either Millennials or boomers and will never dominate the workplace like the boomers have and the Millennials will.

Dovetailing with this ongoing transition in the office from boomers to Millennials is a significant shift in the technological expectations of the workers. Issues range from smartphones to social media use to younger employees’ aptitude for quickly adapting and relying upon e-discovery tools or document management systems. And this familiarity with and reliance of the younger generation on technology is now affecting how offices function.

As a result, corporate legal departments must now attract and appease this rapid influx of Millennial attorneys. In order to meet their digital demands, legal department leaders must find creative ways to cater to technology-specific needs that differ from those of their predecessors.

Tracking Traits

Given that Millennials are digital natives, and were born into a world filled with and connected by technology, it’s natural to infer that younger attorneys today may be generally more technologically attuned than many older attorneys, who are digital immigrants. But, of course, there are exceptions to the rule.

“There’s no uniform answer—it’s highly dependent upon the individual,” says Cam Marston, a regular speaker and consultant on generational matters. “Some [older attorneys] have leapt to it, and those that have are very valuable in the workplace because they know how to use the technology and the values that come with it. But they also understand the processes because they learned them prior to the technology becoming available.”

Brandon Smith, assistant general counsel at automotive industry supplier Tenneco Inc., agrees, noting that technological aptitude and desire is really a matter of personal preference.

“You may find a correlation between a generation and preference because that’s what people are comfortable with, but I wouldn’t ascribe it to the generation,” he says. “It’s more whether people have consciously made the decision to take full advantage of the technological assets that are available to them.”

However, lawyers still say a generational gap exists.

“The short answer is the younger attorneys generally are much more capable than the older generation,” says Ben Boyd, national hiring manager at DLA Piper. “I’m 50, and I’ve been practicing for 24 years. I consider myself fairly capable, and I try to stay up with everything so I don’t have to completely rely on my associates and junior partners to do everything for me. But the older you get, the less familiar you are with the newest and best stuff.”

Discovering Differences

One of the biggest differences between Millennial lawyers and older ones is how Millennials tend to blur the lines between their work and professional lives. This is due in large part to their “herd” mentality because Millennials frequently coalesce into large groups that typically are in constant contact. This mentality plays into younger attorneys’ tendency to engage with one another via social media. Additionally, the ability to now access social media and other people from virtually any device contributes to rapidly blurring the boundaries that used to exist between work life and personal life.

“For the younger generation, when are they not interacting with their peer group?,” asks DLA Piper CIO Don Jaycox. “That graying of the lines between work and personal lives can be very challenging because technology certainly supports interacting at all times and on all platforms.”

This also means that legal departments need to ensure they have proper policies to prevent leakage of confidential information. “They need to determine what the right level of sharing is so as not to give away the crown jewels, but not stifle what can be a very productive, positive inclination to collaborate,” Jaycox says.

Conversely, older attorneys sometimes face problems when it comes to adopting new technologies. While they understand its value and what it can do, they fear the learning curve is too steep and don’t want to look foolish or weak when trying to learn how to use it.

“There’s definitely a fear of failure, especially with e-discovery,” says Bruce Furukawa, member and technology partner at Severson & Werson. “There’s an issue inside the corporation where attorneys don’t want to look like they make mistakes, and stay away from technology because they don’t want to make that mistake.”

To combat this, Furukawa says that when he works with inside counsel, he makes sure to educate them so they can ask their IT people the right questions and intelligently talk to their supervisors or anyone else about the project.

Crossing the Chasm

So how are legal departments dealing with these generational differences? Education is perhaps the most effective method.

There are scores of technology-focused conferences, such as LegalTech and the International Legal Technology Association’s annual conference. In addition, local bar associations often have technology sessions that offer continuing legal education credits, and technology vendors are always willing to share knowledge and advice. Internal technology boot camps and formal training with IT departments also are effective.

Jaycox says DLA Piper adapts its training to lawyers’ individual preferences so they can get out of it what they desire. “For the very busy senior lawyers, we most often use one-on-one training.”

But regardless of where attorneys of all ages fall on the range of education, aptitude or reliance, they have to understand that technology is now the norm, and despite its own continued evolution, it’s here to stay.

“It’s part of our lives now,” Furukawa says. “It’s gotten to the point where you’re not a competent attorney unless you have some basic understanding of technology and e-discovery. You just can’t practice law without it.”

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