I’m contributing to a public policy paper regarding the risks and benefits to the public from the use of cloud computing in law practice management. The process has encouraged me to think in-depth about how the general public reaches out to the legal profession for help. At the same time, I just finished reading Born Digital, by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser. This has prompted me to add to my analysis how the age-range of clients and their methods of communicating with us change over the course of a law practice.
Born Digital discusses the generation among us that has known only a digital world – “Digital Natives.” They were the first generation to write papers in high school using online research engines and Wikipedia entries. They are able to multitask in ways that the generations preceding them cannot understand. They form complex online social networks and share information and unique online personalities that create digital records of the different phases of their lives from infancy on.
For me the book confirmed much of what I already knew about the generation born after 1980. I’m on the cusp of being a member of this generation myself which is a unique position to be in. I feel comfortable in both the digital world and with more traditional forms of communication and social interaction. However, in some ways, I do not identify completely with the digital natives. I have difficulty reviewing and editing lengthy documents on a screen. I enjoy holding an old-fashioned paper WSJ in my hands, but I was also a contributor to Project Guttenberg during my law school days. While I enjoy a good board game, I will also confess to the occasional game of Diablo, Sims or Command & Conquer. My point is that I feel like I understand the needs of digital natives to use technology to communicate in both the personal and professional realms while also understanding why it might be so difficult for some in the legal profession to adapt.
Think about our current clients. Many of them were born before 1980 and are not digital natives. Many of them may or may not be comfortable with the use of technology to receive legal services online. However, how many years will it be before our law practice begins to see a majority of clients who are more comfortable receiving legal services online and communicating with attorneys through web-based virtual law offices?
The upcoming generation of our clients may want to develop an online personality to use when working with their attorney online. They may want to select an avatar and method of meeting with the attorney that integrates some of the forms of digital communication that they use with other social networking sites. They will not have as much hesitation as many of us have at the thought of mixing our personal and professional personalities online.
The obvious concerns with engaging with our future clients are related to privacy and protecting client confidences. These future clients will have grown up sharing all kinds of personal information online. One of the most intriguing suggestions made in Born Digital is that this generation is not unaware that they are sharing all of this information. They are not naïve as to the risks that are involved. In fact, they are actually quite realistic about the fact that if they do not engage in these forms of communication, they are taking another type of risk – one that isolates them from their peers socially and may leave them behind in terms of skills and networks necessary for building their careers. Instead it is suggested that parents and educators place an emphasis not on restricting online access, but rather on staying educated about the security and privacy risks as the technology evolves. (I think this goes for attorneys working with clients in a virtual law office as well. Clients using a client portal to communicate with us have some level of tech-savvy or they wouldn’t be seeking out online legal services in the first place. Rather than spreading fear of online access to legal services, spread education and best practices.)
There were other great points in this book that I would recommend legal professionals consider in terms of their future client’s needs and using technology in their practice management. The authors place some responsibility for privacy concerns with the creators and providers of web-based applications so that with each evolution of the product, there are always better options available for protecting the users’ confidential information and restricting access based on the users’ preferences. These features are preferable to proposing sweeping regulations and laws which might stifle innovation.
Born Digital is not written about law practice management or the legal profession, although both co-authors of the book are attorneys and one is the Vice Dean at Harvard Law School. However, I found that it has wonderful insight into what we as attorneys can expect to see in our clients in the near future. I would recommend it to any attorneys interested in building a virtual law practice that is prepared to communicate effectively with these digital natives in ways that will provide adequate access to legal services. You might also want to check out the Digital Natives blog, a collaborative project of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and the Research Center for Information Law at the University of St. Gallen. The practitioners who take these upcoming changes in our client base to heart in their practice management will be the firms that maintain a competitive advantage in the future of our profession.