Proctor : June 2017
34 PROCTOR | June 2017 Are we really disrupted? Survey uncovers our digital mindset New findings from a study of Queensland lawyers and their digital communication habits suggest that digital technologies are not as disruptive as previously thought The perception that lawyers are opposed to advances in information technologies is quite ironic, as law is and always has been an information-based profession. The bound court reports and loose-leaf legislation services from last century might seem very different from accessing AustLII or the new Queensland Legislation site, but in essence both paper and digital forms allow for the storage, organisation and retrieval of information. How computers, and more recently digital technologies, are changing and will change the legal profession and legal practice has been a concern for 40 years. In 1981 Justice Michael Kirby, then chair of the Law Reform Commission of Australia, wrote that “[l]awyers must address, more urgently than they have been doing, the implications of the computer for their discipline”. 1 Past studies point to several reasons why the legal profession may be resistant to technologically-driven change, including fear of being made redundant by sophisticated technologies and derision towards the automation of legal tasks. 2 However, these studies are largely outdated and are often focused on the introduction of first-generation digital technologies into workplaces, rather than their effect on individual lawyers as these technologies become accepted and incorporated into professional practice. The reality is that individual Queensland lawyers have been adopting and using computers and digital technologies for many years. Indeed, the generation of lawyers that entered the profession after 2000 would not have experienced legal practice without online repositories, email and mobile phones. In the 31 August 2016 issue of the QLS Update, an online survey was distributed in order to better understand how lawyers in our current digital age are experiencing the use and effect of digital technologies. The survey was undertaken in conjunction with Queensland Law Society and Griffith Law School. The survey was a voluntary sample of Queensland lawyers and 51 complete responses were recorded. The survey questions explored topics including digital communication use, productivity and satisfaction related to digital communications, and the impact digital communications have on professional practice and quality of life. Overall, the survey results indicated that lawyers’ perceptions of digital technologies have changed since Justice Kirby wrote about the need for lawyers to address the “implications of the computer”. In particular, the results indicated that Queensland lawyers regard digital technologies as having a positive effect on productivity and professional practice. However, Queensland lawyers also regard face-to-face communication as positively affecting productivity and satisfaction to a greater extent than interaction mediated by digital technologies. No significant generation gap in technological capabilities One of the more surprising findings from the survey was that the respondents recorded that digital technology had increased their productivity and professional practice rather than hindering it. This finding was regardless of the age or years since admission of the respondent, as there was no significant difference in responses between respondents aged 35 and under compared to respondents aged 36 and over. This is in contrast to earlier research that suggested there was a generational difference between the pre- and post-2000 admitted practitioners in working styles, inappropriate use of technology at work, and familiarity with using digital technologies. Current digital technology use positively affects professional practice over quality of life On average, respondents indicated that while digital technologies have improved their professional practice, the same technologies have neither improved nor have been detrimental to their quality of life. Three strong themes emerged as to why respondents found digital technologies to positively affect productivity and professional practice: 1. speed and connectivity 2. flexibility and convenience 3. digital technologies being conducive to legal work. However, the same positive factors of digital technologies for productivity and professional practice also have negative aspects when considering respondent satisfaction and quality of life. Respondents indicated that the speed and connectivity of digital technologies creates unrealistic expectations in the workplace, and the flexibility of working out of office intrudes into a practitioner’s personal life. Legal workplaces and digital technologies Although respondents agreed that their workplaces are encouraging the use of digital mediums, respondents also indicated that legal workplaces are not using the full potential of digital technologies. The support and improvements to digital technologies in law firms are largely focused on efficiencies, processes and productivities. This includes the recording of billable hours, which are a known source of stress for modern lawyers. Additionally, in the current business-oriented law firm culture, there are often negative stigmas associated with accessing the available tools and capabilities offered by the digital such as part-time work or seeking online support around mental health.