Management Assistance Program
Legal Technology and the Family Lawyer
By Jim Calloway
In 2018, I wrote a column called “Technology Competence for the Family Lawyer” for the Oklahoma Bar Journal. The Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct had been amended in 2016 to provide that competence as a lawyer included an awareness of “the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology” in Comment 6 to Rule 1.1 of the Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct, relating to competence.
The inspiration for that column was a New York Times article where a spouse was terrorized by her divorcing spouse, using his knowledge of and access to the technology he had set up in the marital home. All the home security tools, which could be accessed remotely, could also be instruments of attack: doorbells could ring during the night, code numbers on digital locks could be changed, the thermostat could be set to an extreme temperature, the home security cameras could be used to spy on visitors to the home and the email account the spouse was using to communicate with their lawyer could be opened and read.
It is common in a marriage that one spouse may be the “IT person,” and the other is more of an end user. So I suggested that a part of standard operations in family law cases is reminding the new client to change all of their passwords and lock codes, including the home Wi-Fi, social media accounts, mobile phones and PINs for bank accounts or credit cards. It turned out to be a fairly long list.
I encourage you to review the previous column to update or create a digital security handout for your new family law clients. As law firms seek to expand their service offerings, you may even consider having a recommended local tech support person who you trust to handle confidential information and who will handle these tasks for clients if they are not tech do-it-yourselfers.
Oklahoma family lawyers were early adopters of technology. Long ago, the OBA Family Law Section had a series of “computer magic” programs when the main options for document automation were forms, copy and paste and macros. Technology is increasingly important for the family lawyer in several ways.
Traditional paid media, like newspaper advertisements, are expensive and have a decreasing readership. The Yellow Pages have even moved online.
Family law practitioners have dealt with the impact of online legal service providers. But in rural areas, we also see road signs offering divorce at bargain prices. Family lawyers must deal with price shoppers who want to discuss an uncontested divorce because everything is worked out, except for custody, visitation, child support and who gets the collectibles.
More and more, the marketing opportunities are mostly digital. Because potential family law clients may have never thought they need a family lawyer until they do, it is important for family lawyers to have ongoing marketing efforts, as well as a referral network. This is a good time to review those efforts. The foundation is still the law firm’s website. It needs to include lots of content that speaks to the challenges that are of concern to these types of clients, as well as the law firm’s qualifications. You can and should build an attractive and information-packed website. But your website must be visited to be useful. By now, you should have claimed your law firm’s address and business profile on Google. Particularly in urban areas, having your business location appear on Google Maps may bring you clients who are interested in a lawyer whose office is near their home or work. Visit www.google.com/business to begin filling out your profile. If you would like to read a more detailed explanation, your attention is directed to “How to Claim a Business on Google in Five Easy Steps’’ from Oak Bank.
The fact that I referenced a bank I’d never heard of until doing the research for this column is a good lesson. I did a little research on Google, expecting to be directed to Google’s instructions on how to do this, and I was. But the bank’s post was so clear and well written, that I linked to it instead. Whether I am the fourth or the 400th person to link to this is known to the bank. But a family lawyer’s website could be packed with useful information, like five myths about Oklahoma divorce, 10 ways to minimize the impact of divorce or how joint custody works in Oklahoma. You can rotate which of these you feature and push out via social media. But the more people and organizations that link to these posts, the more likely it is Google will be friendlier to your posts, assuming you have claimed your Google profile.
If you do a good job publicizing these posts, other organizations will soon be linking to your well-written and accurate posts. That is how internet marketing is supposed to work. If you don’t feel you are a great writer on posts directed to the public instead of the courts, inexpensive AI tools like www.copy.ai can help you write long features or short posts.
Almost every family lawyer had to learn about social media and how to get that evidence admitted as we all learned people would put things in social media posts that they might never admit to in a deposition.
I’m certain most of you warn your family law clients about inappropriate use of social media and how things that seem innocuous to them and their friends might not play well in court, particularly if they are negative posts about the soon-to-be ex-spouse. But some lawyers have had to appreciate that some people cannot avoid social media because of their job or their interests. If your client is a volunteer youth sports coach and the schedules and practices are shared on social media, the client needs to continue using that tool.
You can warn your client not to post about the divorce or separated spouse on social media. But the client will have to ask their friends not to post about the divorce or the “ex” as well. Have a few examples of how innocuous posts from parties and events do not always present well in court.
SECURE DIGITAL COMMUNICATIONS
As the threat of online criminal activity increased, best practices evolved in digital communication. For example, there was a time when lawyers negotiating a qualified domestic relations order would have exchanged drafts back and forth via email. But we now understand that email is not secure and shouldn’t be used for the kinds of personally identifiable information like those contained in a qualified domestic relations order. Portals and many tools from Dropbox to OneDrive allow you to share sensitive documents securely, or the lawyers can agree to a password they use to lock the Word documents they are exchanging.
When discussing the importance of secure communications with your client, it is a good time to explain to your client why forwarding attorney-client communications to friends or relatives is a bad idea. We are still big fans of practice management software solutions that provide portals and often client-facing apps your clients can use to communicate with the law firm.
INNOVATION AND EFFICIENCY
New tools are emerging almost daily it seems. So if you want to improve something, there is probably a new tool to assist. How do your intake processes work? Check out Bob Ambrogi’s review of DivorceHelp123 at https://bit.ly/46IakCI. This is likely a good product, but the main reason for reading the review is to see the things that could improve your intake process, whether you use their tool, another tool or build a process yourself internally.
CLIENT EXPECTATIONS ON SPEED OF INFORMATION DELIVERY
We are in a time when many things can be delivered instantly. Family law clients often have issues that need to be handled immediately, whether through the court or a negotiated agreement with opposing counsel. But then, things often need to move more slowly from the client’s point of view as discovery and other things must take place and a trial date scheduled. Prepare your client for that part of the process, and do a good job of letting the client know what you are working on for them.
Technology advances are creating many changes at an increasingly rapid rate. Hopefully, this month’s column will give family lawyers some ideas on what they need to improve next in their service delivery. Even though we are professionals who rely on precedent and legal history in doing much of our work, we are at a time when all businesses are under pressure to improve and adapt constantly for fear of being left behind.
Mr. Calloway is the OBA Management Assistance Program director. Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help solving a management dilemma? Contact him at 405-416-7008, 800-522-8060 or email@example.com. It’s a free member benefit.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal — November, 2023 — Vol. 94, No. 9