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The Young Turks of Information Processing

By March 8, 2010law, web-tech

Last Saturday I taught a two hour skills course to 30 or so Loyola Law Students about Digital Lawyering. Almost every one of them had a laptop in front of them, which was good. I was hooked to the Internet and demonstrated how to find things using Internet services like Google Reader, Delicious and so forth. As I referred to these services I sensed that the students were going to those sites and reading along for themselves. As I said, I think this is a good thing.

I realize that most people in my generation would be taken aback, believing it to be disrespectful for students to be doing something else while I was talking. So, let me explain why it doesn't bother me. First, I'm happy to share whatever thoughts I have with whomever wants to listen. If, in addressing 30 students only 3 of them are actually listening, that's totally fine. I'm there for those 3 students and I appreciate the opportunity to help them. If the other ones don't care about me, then I'm not concerned about them either.

The reality, however, is that most of the students were listening. But the thing is: they weren't only listening. They were also connecting dots by doing their own online research as I talked to them. This is how students today behave. I know this mostly because I have a teenage daughter (as well as two slightly older kids) and I see how she gathers information using her computer or iPhone. It's fascinating to see how adept she is at finding information. So, my first reason for not being concerned about students using their laptops is that I understand that they're actively gathering information, as opposed to passively receiving it.

The other reason that I'm not bothered, and actually happy to see students using their computers as I talk is this. My generation is pretty lame when it comes to gathering information in the digital world. In law this manifests itself most starkly in the world of e-discovery. Discovery, in law, is all about getting the low-down on what really happened in a lawsuit. You can get the low-down by interviewing witnesses or deposing them, but that takes time, costs money and is inherently unreliable. What people say happened is not usually exactly what happened.

To really get a handle on what occurred in a case with serious factual disputes (which is most cases), you have to look at documents. And today when I say 'documents' I mostly mean 'electronic documents.' Sure, there's still a lot of paper to sift through (but you should digitize it anyway). Increasingly the bulk of written communications is in email. People who email tend to make the kind of casual comments that litigators like me really appreciate. So, these days, email is what you want to look at first and foremost.

Most lawyers have trouble with email (and digital information in general) because they don't understand how to navigate that world. Lawyers who don't search for things on Internet are the worst. They lack a fundamental skill that's needed to efficiently attack digital information. Naturally they're inept when it comes to handling electronic discovery. Some of them are committing serious malpractice. But, of course, they have no idea.

The next generation of lawyers will not have this problem, or at least it won't be a prevalent problem like it is today. The young turks coming out of law school today don't have a passive relationship to information. They attack digital information the way sharks attack wounded seals.

An example of this mindset was presented to me after my lecture to the Loyola law students. Two fellows who happened to be brothers came up to the podium to chat.  We started talking to me about iPhone applications, and wound up talking about 'Words with Friends,' which is basically a word game like Scrabble. I told them that I was playing with my daughter and that I was sure that she was cheating because she always won (and I knew that she didn't have as large a vocabulary as me). I mentioned that I was going to have to resort to using one of the online word-finder tools to keep up with what she was doing.

One of the brothers said that they don't allow cheating like that when they play Words With Friends. I said, “what do you mean don't allow cheating? How can you know if the other person is cheating?” He said that if someone he is playing against uses a word he suspects is not in their vocabulary he checks online to see what if that word was the top suggestion in an online word-finder. If it is then he knows the person is probably cheating and calls them on it. His matter-of-fact response caught me totally off-guard.

So, think about this for a second and see if you grasp the power of this statement. And by 'this' I don't mean as applied to scrabble or word games. Think about the mindset. Law students today use the web like detectives. They know how to gather information (fine), but they instinctively know how to trace back the steps that other people use to find information. This mindset and the online research skills that come with it are dangerous. At least to some people.

For starters, these students will have a huge advantage when it comes to doing electronic discovery. They haven't even started practicing law and already they're leagues ahead of lawyers who've been in the business for years.  They know how to gather digital information, and they have no resistance to adopting new ways of gathering it if that provides an instant advantage (e.g. no one is going to have to convince them of the value of concept searching). These lawyers will know how to zero in on key information quickly and inexpensively. So if I were a traditional lawyer (e.g. one with poor Internet skills or someone who has trouble with digital information), I'd be afraid of the next generation of lawyers.

The next generation will not graduate from law school and immediately surpass veteran lawyers.  But they have a skill that's already in high demand, but short supply.  Veteran lawyers can't quickly learn how to gather and process digital information. Most young lawyers will learn how to practice law fairly quickly, or at least much faster than the veteran lawyers will learn what they should be learning.


P.S. If you appreciate these kinds of observations, you might want to read this as well.

5 Comments

  • Thanks. It’s great to read a positive appraisal of the incoming generation of lawyers.

    One of the reasons I chose law as a profession (over 30 years ago) is that it never stops changing. There’s always something new to learn. Being able to go online for legal research, public records, news stories about parties and witnesses, and sharing information with colleagues has made the practice so much easier.

  • Thorne says:

    Great! They can do 15 things at once.

    But can they write?

  • Johnny says:

    Ernie,

    A great synopsis of the coming storm. Not only is the technology advancing faster, the users know how to use these unconventional tools.

    I used a recent article by Malcolm Gladwell in How David Beats Goliath to explain to lawyers that they must adapt or perish. Gladwell explained a case study:

    “What happens …when the underdogs [The Davids] … acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”

    “When an underdog fought like David, he usually won. But most of the time underdogs didn’t fight like David. Of the two hundred and two lopsided conflicts in [the] database, the underdog chose to go toe to toe with Goliath the conventional way a hundred and fifty-two times—and lost a hundred and nineteen times.”

    Look over your shoulder, those young Legal David’s are coming up on our tails fast.

  • David Canton says:

    Yes. Those of us who are digital immigrants and understand this and embrace the tools have some hope of keeping up with the digital natives. But lawyers who think traditionally will eventually be left behind – or retire early

  • Great post, Ernie.

    When I give talks to college students I try to do it in the computer lab. I post all my resources in the common directory and urge them to go explore, and play around with the files while I’m talking. That way, if I don’t get to everything, or if my pace is too slow (or even too fast) they have access to the info they need. It feels more honest, too — I can admit that I’m still learning and be more of a guide and a slightly-further-along explorer of the resources rather than act like a guru.

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