Lawyers: The 21st Century Luddites?

By Mike Dillon, Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary for Adobe

Why lawyers need to transition to the digital age

Earlier this month, I received a letter from a partner of a New York law firm inviting me to present as part of a panel at a large legal conference.  I was asked to select the session that I wanted to speak at and return a signed copy of the letter by facsimile to indicate my willingness to participate.

The theme of the meeting was “How firm attorneys can better serve their business clients.”

And I was asked to use a fax machine to provide my reply.

How ironic.  It almost made me want to rummage through the garage and find that box with my old acoustic coupler and IBM PC XT. The truth is I’ve been working at Adobe for nine months and I don’t even know if we have fax machine. Obviously it’s not that we don’t need to communicate externally. Instead it’s because we use a host of different technologies that are more effective and environmentally friendly. One of these is a product called Adobe EchoSign that allows documents to be routed, tracked and signed electronically (and with the latest release even by using mobile devices and while offline).

We use it for almost every company document that requires a signature – as do many of our customers. It’s a much more efficient way to sign a form or agreement, forward it to another person and keep track of where it is in the approval process all through your PC, laptop or mobile device – no more having people walk around with colored folders of paper documents with “sign here” tabs. Electronic signatures are secure and legal in most jurisdictions.

Matt Dillon

I am constantly stuck by how reluctant the members of my profession are to embrace new technologies. I still recall a law firm partner in the 1990s cautioning my company’s legal department against using email. A few years later, many legal seminars I attended counseled that companies should prohibit employees from accessing the Internet while at work.  I’m not alone in my views about lawyers as luddites. It’s a common complaint I hear from business clients and other in-house attorneys. As an example, the attorneys at Kia Motors have gone so far as to audit the technological prowess of the firms they use.

We conducted our own study at Adobe to get insight into peoples’ views on signing documents electronically and the results were — at least to me — not surprising regarding my fellow legal professionals. According to the recent study, 70% of the more than 1,000 managers from a range of industries surveyed agreed that e-signing is more efficient and would make life easier. Further, 61% said that working digitally, including e-signing, saves on costs and 32% said a digital workflow is more efficient, giving them an edge with client work and ultimately helps win new business. Yet, when compared with those in other industries, only 43% of my colleagues will electronically track changes in a document vs. 55% in other businesses; they continue to print copies and edit on paper. And only 34% will refrain from printing a document if they don’t need to. When it comes to sending a document, lawyers are the most likely to print and mail paper (57% vs. 38%). And forget about using cloud services — only 6% said they would opt for that.

[pullquote]I am constantly stuck by how reluctant the members of my profession are to embrace new technologies. I still recall a law firm partner in the 1990s cautioning my company’s legal department against using email. A few years later, many legal seminars I attended counseled that companies should prohibit employees from accessing the Internet while at work.[/pullquote]

While I would love to have every member of my profession adopt Adobe EchoSign, I would be far happier to have them join the 21st century and embrace any of the new tools available to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of their legal support.  To this end, last year the American Bar Association amended Rule 1.1, which describes an attorney’s Duty of Competence.  It now requires that: “To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology, engage in continuing study and education and comply with all continuing legal education requirements to which the lawyer is subject.” (Italics added.)

It’s a change of just a few words; however, hopefully it will move the profession more quickly into the Digital Age. The result will be greater efficiency for firms and more satisfied clients.

Mike Dillon currently serves as senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary for Adobe where is responsible for global legal affairs, public policy interests and compliance operations. His corporate legal experience spans both established and emerging growth companies. He is a member of the State Bar of California.

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Preston Clark is a licensed attorney and entrepreneur based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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