How can law firms better support their legal technology initiatives along with the class of highly skilled professionals that staff and serve those efforts?
While the impact of the pandemic on how law firms and their attorneys work has been extensively covered for the past two years, relatively little attention has been paid to managing and interacting with legal technology professionals who support these lawyers, despite the unique aspects and characteristics of those working in the technical field.
However disparate legal professionals and legal technologists might be, these two groups do have one common thread, which is the importance of communication and collaboration, especially considering the current tight labor market in general and the technology sector specifically.
Foster alternative avenues of communication and engagement
Different types of individuals are comfortable with eyes on them in the courtroom versus those who train their eyes on a computer screen for hours on end. By nature, many technologists are introverts at heart.
Engineers responsible for the security of a law firm network, those in programming or support roles, or others responsible for the technical operations in areas such as e-discovery aren’t usually spending a lot of time on the phone or in meetings with their co-workers. Even the time around the coffee machine for casual conversations has ceased to exist in a world in which the typical employee now rolls out of bed and hops on their computer to work on system implementation tasks without a scintilla of human interaction.
So, what can law firm leaders do to better integrate technical resources and keep their legal tech crews engaged? One tactic I’ve observed that seems to work well in the software industry is literally encouraging daytime ongoing chats on technologies like Teams or Zoom. While chatting might sound like time-wasting to many traditional managers, in today’s unique work environments, it really is not. It seems to be a great boost for morale and, like the water cooler before it, allows for the exchange of verbal ideas relating to the problems of the day.
Additionally, if your firm has not already done so, creating funding pools for things like docking stations, ergonomic equipment, multiple monitors, high-quality headsets, and the like might be even more appreciated in the technology domain than for those with legal-oriented careers — not that everyone would not enjoy a morale lift with offerings of that nature. On that note, don’t leave your tech staff out of the loop for appreciation swag or shipments of other items like home care products to personally show interest and care in your team members. The seemingly small gesture is a great idea to keep technology folks engaged.
What can law firm leaders do to better integrate technical resources and keep their legal tech crews engaged?
Finally, in my opinion, there is an even greater need to be flexible in work arrangements for technology professionals than with others in the legal domain. Many of the workers are younger and early in their careers, so this is a model they have grown accustomed to. And, importantly, there is a wide disparity in skill sets even within the range of a defined job, so anything a law firm or corporate law department can do to meet employee’s desired work arrangements almost certainly will result in an uptick in performance. In my view, flexibility is good business.
Firms should also not overlook factors that have traditionally been key points for legal technologist as well. Training, for example, can be a huge differentiator in helping to recruit and retain top-tier technical talent within a law firm.
The challenge here might be the mindset. Within legal, training is an often considered a requirement for lawyers — think the need to amass CLE hours to maintain one’s license. For technologists, however, it is often a joy to learn and expand one’s practical skills. Indeed, for legal tech professionals such training is really a necessity due to the rapidly changing dynamics of the tools of the trade.
Carving out time for training, frequent discussions with team members on the skills and certifications they wish to pursue and partnering with your folks to get their development train rolling are all excellent ways to continue close working partnerships with your legal tech team, regardless of whether you are physically all together.
Encouraging other technologists to connect via LinkedIn Learning, leverage free training offered by companies like Oracle or Microsoft, or avail themselves of all the excellent content and programs offered by the International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) are all useful specific suggestions to help employees get their own ball rolling.
Compensation & work/life balance
There is a strong tendency for technologists, like any employee, to blur the lines between work and home when they are, physically at least, one and the same. This is a challenging area to address because, by nature, many technologists have support-oriented roles. Simply saying “don’t work weekends or evenings” sounds good, but often is not practical or sometimes even unfair if not everyone takes heed.
Better approaches include deep integration of external support-oriented entities (like a Help Desk or Managed Services Provider), ensuring your employees that they can do their job off-hours, and working with service providers to try to raise the bar when they return seemingly basic issues “back over the wall” rather than the service provider handling the issues themselves.
Other ideas — which may or may not work, depending on the size of your teams — could be ideas like having an engineer-on-call where others are specifically not on call and thus truly “off-duty” during these periods; or negotiating service legal agreements with internal staff for off-hours issues so not every issue encountered at 3 pm on a Sunday afternoon is considered a “fire drill” with an understanding of course that some issues are, in fact, urgent.
Firm leaders should understand the need for specific strategies for how to support, promote, and partner with legal technologists during times of changing and challenging workplace dynamics. What works well for attorneys, paralegals, or legal operations professionals, not surprisingly, probably benefits from a touch of tweaking for technologists. And those firms that follow some of these suggestions might help those professionals who are overseeing firms’ legal technology efforts.