A Few More Thoughts on Lawyers' Competency in Word

After we published “In(novating) with the Old” in the Legal Technologist, friends and readers shared with us additional research and insight into Word literacy and competency in lawyers.

Unsurprisingly, the results of a 2016 test showed that only a third of the law students asked to perform basic Microsoft Word tasks were able to successfully complete all tasks. The list of tasks? As basic as:

• Accept/Turn-off track changes.

• Cut & Paste.

• Replace text.

• Format font and paragraph.

• Fix footers.

• Insert hyperlink.

• Apply/Modify style.

• Insert/Update cross-references.

• Insert page break.

• Insert non-breaking space.

• Clean document properties.

• Create comparison document (i.e., a redline).

Interestingly, the companion article noted that as opposed to their MBA colleagues, law students were not required to take any classes or training courses that would teach them to use the software they would use the most in their careers. Possibly, law schools and law firms trust their associates to understand the basic functions of Word. More likely, however, the industry lacks a strong understanding of what the young attorneys will be achieving in that Software. This could be, perhaps, because some might relegate such tasks to Word Processing departments or paralegals, or maybe because leadership still sees Word as simply a typewriter.

But understanding the depths of your Word processor is vital to fulfilling the duty of technical competence you owe to your clients. Commentators have correctly noticed that technical competency does not mean learning to code or running your briefs through AI software (or at least not yet), but it “starts with software everyone uses.” Since using a typewriter to put together your brief would not cut it in fulfilling your duty, neither should “using your computer as a glorified, glowing typewriter is unlikely to meet the standards.” Therefore, they agreed, learning the proper--and in-depth--way of using Word is central to meeting the minimal standards required of practicing attorneys.

The problem might stem, as others noted, from the fact that we still live in a legal world where even our use of technology is aimed at mimicking paper. From creating special captions of a certain format, to e-signatures, to following strict rules regarding the way the briefs look rather than focusing on the substance, the intricacies of Word are simply meant to replicate the look and feel of a pretechnological era, often without taking advantage of the new technological solutions. As more courts join some New York courts in requiring hyperlinks to record documents, and sometimes even cases, the judicial system might finally start seeing the value of technology and moving away from paper and paper-inspired submissions.

Notably, the authors of the 2016 article regarding law students’ lack of competency in Word have since worked with bar associations and law schools to train lawyers and law students and assess their ability to use Word in their practice. With an increasing amount of resources at their disposal, it would be interesting to see if the newer generations of law students would fare better in completing the basic Word tasks than their 2016 counterparts.

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