Technology has changed all of our day-to-day lives. It also has impacted how lawyers practice. While having the internet at our fingertips is a convenience for most of us, it can cause headaches for judges and lawyers when jurors use the internet during trial to post or search online about the case. This means that lawyers must be more tech-competent than ever before. Here are two ways that technology has changed how lawyers practice:

  1. Litigants Face the Challenge of Jurors’ Social Media and Internet Use

Imagine years of preparation, costly investigations, and hundreds or thousands of hours of work by attorneys and clients being shattered in a moment by a juror’s single click on his or her phone, tablet, or computer. Whether by posting 280 characters on Twitter discussing deliberations or punching a few words into Google to search for more information on a legal concept or a fact central to a case, jurors have the power to radically disrupt the judicial process at their fingertips.

Jurors’ use of the internet and social media during trial and deliberations can create a real toll on lawyers, litigants, and the judiciary. In fact, online activity by jurors recently has led to a mistrial in a $13 million police shooting case, a thrown-out fraud conviction, and a potential retrial for a notorious drug lord.

Judges often employ explicit instructions and the threat of contempt to dissuade jurors from googling the parties or trial lawyers, conducting independent research online, or posting about the trial or their deliberations on social media. Many then hold jurors in contempt when they deliberately disobey instructions. Judges have fined jurors anywhere from $500 to $1,200 for their online activity that disrupts a trial or verdict, and some states have flirted with legislation to increase penalties. In the United Kingdom, judges may jail jurors based on their internet use, in one case for two months when a juror googled additional information about the victims in a fraud case and shared it with fellow jurors.

Because more than 80 percent of Americans own smart phones and the average American spends at least 3 hours a day online, it is a tall order to prevent jurors from googling or tweeting. As a result, attorneys should vigorously monitor jurors’ social media from voir dire through the final verdict. As noted below, it even may be part of attorneys’ professional duty of competence to ensure that they are keeping a close eye on jurors’ Twitter feeds.

  1. Attorneys Must Be More Tech-Competent Than Before

Lawyers also must keep up with other technological changes that impact the practice of law.

Under the Model Rules of Professional Conduct promulgated by the American Bar Association (ABA), a version of which has been adopted in 49 states, lawyers have a duty to provide competent representation to their clients and to maintain the knowledge and skills that their practice requires. In 2012, the ABA took the significant step of formally updating the rule to clarify that lawyers also have a duty to be competent in technology.

The new comment to the rules states that, “to maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.” Since that change, 37 states have adopted the ABA’s Duty of Technology Competence as part of their version of the Rules of Professional Conduct, including Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Texas.

While the duty is clear, it’s not clear just what technology the rule refers to. While most agree that the duty includes basic competence in everyday technologies like e-mail and Microsoft Office, it has been left to individual jurisdictions and professional organizations to provide further guidance.

For example, the New York City Bar Association has suggested that attorneys have an affirmative duty to research potential jurors’ public social media information (see New York City Bar Association Formal Opinion 2012-02). While the research can help identify biases harmful to a client’s interests, lawyers must carefully avoid any direct contact with potential jurors online (via message or friend request) lest they violate other ethical rules. Juror consulting firms have stepped in with advanced tools to search and compile potential juror’s publicly available posts. But the onus is ultimately on the lawyer to ensure they are protecting their client’s interests by doing all they can to identify biased jurors.

Further, the duty of technology competence may affect an attorney’s obligation to protect clients’ confidential information from cybersecurity risk and to use appropriate electronic discovery practices and technology. These duties were at the center of a recent data breach, where lawyers disclosed confidential customer information in an e-discovery production because the lawyer did not understand the review process or the scope of the third-party vendor’s work. Further, in California, a state that has not adopted the ABA’s Duty of Technology Competence, the state bar has issued an ethics opinion stating that an attorney’s duty of competence requires, “at a minimum, a basic understanding of, and facility with, issues related to e-discovery.”

As technology continues to change at a rapid pace and impact the practice of law, clients will expect their lawyers to pay attention. To that end, lawyers must be competent in a range of technologies directly related to the practice of law.

These are just some of the most notable ways that technology is changing the practice of law. As technology continues to advance, the practice will continue to evolve with it. Lawyers should – and may be ethically obligated – to stay abreast of and develop competence in these technologies.