[Note: This is another in a continuing series in which I am reposting some of my original drafts of published articles.]
Over past couple of years, I’ve found that the parts of my presentations that get the most response and generate the most questions are the parts where I talk about ways that lawyers and IT staff can better talk with each other. I’ve gotten the clear impression that there is a lot of pain and misunderstanding out there. The following article addresses the IT/lawyer communication divide from the point of view of the legal administrator and focuses on the role legal administrators might play in improving this dynamic. The article originally appeared in the March/April 2006 issue of the ALA’s Legal Management magazine.
Bridging the Widening Communications Gap Between Lawyers and IT Departments: Some Simple Starting Strategies
We are finding that moving technology projects forward in law firms is not as much about hardware and software as it is about trying to get lawyers and IT departments to communicate in ways they can each understand.
Lawyers and IT people will universally agree that there is a wide communication gap between them. As firms try to bridge that gap, they may well find that the key to getting lawyers and IT departments together in the role legal administrators can play in the process because they have learned, sometimes painfully, to communicate with both groups.
A Question of Language?
The gap between lawyers and IT people is based on language. Both groups are known for using jargon excessively. More precisely, both will lapse into jargon when unsure of themselves or nervous. Lawyers speak in jargon, but use words precisely, both in their work and in general conversation. IT people also speak in jargon, but are not as precise with words in general conversation. However, IT people are quite precise with words within their discipline.
In both cases, the imprecise use of words may lead to statements and conversations that do not make sense. This annoys both lawyers and IT people, and members of both groups tend to get frustrated quickly. Things go downhill from there.
Lawyers with the most helpful and effective secretaries and the best relations with other staff members invariably have one thing in common. They spend time explaining the whys and providing the bigger context to others. I cannot count the number of IT people who have told me that they wished they knew more about what lawyers did so they could implement the most useful technology for them.
What Are the Hurdles?
There are three traits most lawyers share that make solving the communications problems difficult.
1. Lawyers really do work hard. The law is a high stress profession that places huge demands on lawyers. Every lawyer has developed techniques to deal with these demands. If a new technology project doesn’t work well, they get further behind the eight-ball, and you may have disrupted their coping mechanism, putting even more stress on them.
2. Although all lawyers are certainly capable of learning technology, the fear of technology is common among lawyers. Although lawyers do not like to look bad or foolish, there is also a genuine fear of technology out there.
3. Lawyers, by training, are critical and, at the same time, they are comfortable working with drafts. Even if they like something, their natural reaction is to find some flaws and comment only on negative aspects. They will change their minds as they see ways to improve the final project and often will criticize exactly what they told you to do earlier, because they see it as a draft in progress.
Strategies and Tactics for Bridging the Gap.
Legal administrators play a unique role in this process for a number of reasons. First, they have already had years of experience bridging the gap between lawyers and staff and, probably, between IT departments and staff. Second, based on my experience, legal administrators have the ability to schedule mandatory meetings that lawyers actually had to attend. Third, legal administrators know how to make meetings work, even if it’s just seeing that there is food there.
Here are my best tips on helping this process:
1. The Communication that Matters Most is Lawyer to IT Staff. The best thing a firm can do is to help the IT department understand the business of the law firm and the nature of the practice and work that lawyers do. Part of this process is to make it clear that lawyers in the same firm may do very different work. IT people can be surprised to learn that not all lawyers try cases. Set up a series of lunches where lawyers talk about and answer questions about their work.
2. Do Some Project Reviews. The military evaluates engagements in detail after they occur to see what lessons can be learned about what went right and wrong. Law firms rarely do that with IT projects. Schedule some review sessions after completing IT projects to get lawyers and IT people talking about what worked, what didn’t and how the next project might be improved, in an objective, rather than a crisis, setting.
3. Encourage Regular Conversations at Times Other than Crises. Consider this example. A lawyer waits until the last minute before printing 5,000 pages of documents due in two hours. An IT staffer simply calculates that, at ten pages per minute, it will take at least nine hours, and tells the lawyer it cannot be done. An argument ensues until someone intervenes and figures out a work-around. Both lawyer and IT staffer form low opinions of each other and vow never to speak to each other again. Getting conversations to happen outside of crisis settings must be a priority.
4. Take Advantage of the Natural Go-betweens. There are lawyers, usually young lawyers, who really “get” technology and can talk easily with IT people. There can also be IT staffers who talk easily with lawyers. Those people should be encouraged to be go-betweens and to survey and communicate the wishes and concerns of each group.
5. Use Food as Bait. I am hesitant to draw general conclusions about groups of people, but my experience with lawyers and IT people is that both groups cannot pass by a conference room with free food on a table. A spread of coffee, juice, bagels and donuts to start a day will work wonders at bridging the gap between lawyers and IT departments and getting the ball rolling.
There should be no higher priority in legal technology at law firms today than getting lawyers and IT staff talking with each other on a regular, meaningful basis. Legal administrators have the best shot of being able to talk in the language of both groups and bringing them together. The job is not an easy one. I recommend looking for small victories based on the ideas in this article and your own experience, and then building on them. It is an effort that is well worth making.
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (http://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/)]
Learn more about legal technology at Dennis Kennedy’s Legal Technology Central page.
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