Curiosity Killed the Cat (Lawyer): Legal Technology Best Practices

Remember the “cat lawyer” Rod Ponton?  How could we forget his Zoom appearance in a court in Presidio County, Texas when he was unable to figure out how to turn off the cat filter on his Zoom call during a hearing on Tuesday in Texas’ 394th Judicial District Court as he declared to Judge Roy Ferguson, who presided over the case: “I’m here live. I’m not a cat.”  Perhaps a bit of technology curiosity beforehand would have killed the cat (lawyer) in Mr. Ponton!

This article in Attorney At Work (What Does It Take to Be a Great Lawyer? The Competency of Curiosity, written by Meyling “Mey” Ly Ortiz), discusses how most new lawyers tend to lean hard into exuding only confidence and capability. As a result, they feel that asking questions is somehow out of bounds because it is presumed to be seen as stupidity.

This faulty presumption makes it hard for young lawyers to ask clarifying questions or “why” questions when given an assignment because they are afraid to look like they don’t know what they’re doing. Rather, when given a new assignment, baby lawyers tend to furiously write copious notes, receiving the assignment as “marching orders,” only to take them to their office, close their door, and expend a lot of energy and stress trying to figure out, first, what their actual assignment is, and then second, how to execute in the time allotted.

As the author notes young lawyers (when turning their work product in) “simply submit their work and don’t ask questions or for feedback. Or when they are given feedback, they sit quietly and nod profusely, eager to show that they ‘get’ it, even if they don’t. This pattern tends to repeat itself over the first year or two and can be quite stunting to a young lawyer’s growth.”

Continuing, the author states: “What’s missing in this common pattern is the competency of intellectual curiosity — which is hallmarked by asking questions, including the all-important “why?” As emulated by young children, perhaps to the chagrin of exhausted parents, asking questions is how we learn and a way of showing interest and higher thinking. Sure, a young lawyer can be a legal robot, deeply immersed in the cycle of input of discrete assignment and output of work product.  But to really set yourself apart and grow, you have to understand why things are done the way they are (or at least why that particular lawyer does it that way). You also must understand how the pieces you work on fit into the bigger picture or strategy. You can’t get that if you’re too afraid to ask questions, whether for clarification, your own edification or for feedback so you can improve in the future.”

The author goes on to provide very “lawyerly”, tangible examples of how a young lawyer can flex the skill of intellectual curiosity. And they’re great examples, but it seems that this premise fits the adoption of technology by lawyers as well. The “competency” of curiosity includes technical competence as well, as noted by Comment 8 of Rule 1.1: Competence from the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct which says:

[8]  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, engage in continuing study and education and comply with all continuing legal education requirements to which the lawyer is subject.

What’s the best way to keep abreast of the benefits and risks associated with technology? Stay curious. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to show your lack of knowledge about a particular technology concept. Because that’s how you learn!

Curiosity killed the cat (lawyer). And it just might help you avoid an embarrassing situation, sanctions in a case or worse. At least Rod Ponton had a sense of humor about it.

So, what do you think? How curious are you about new technology? Please share any comments you might have or if you’d like to know more about a particular topic.

Disclaimer: The views represented herein are exclusively the views of the authors and speakers themselves, and do not necessarily represent the views held by my employer, my partners or my clients. eDiscovery Today is made available solely for educational purposes to provide general information about general eDiscovery principles and not to provide specific legal advice applicable to any particular circumstance. eDiscovery Today should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a lawyer you have retained and who has agreed to represent you.

3 comments

  1. Doug – I had the pleasure of meeting Rod Pontin last year, and discussed the lawyer cat situation – While he was embarrassed at the time, he is now using his experience by helping younger attorneys understand the implications of not being up to par on essential technology (not just legal tech either) – Some good came out of this (by the way, he is an incredibly nice guy and very humble!)

  2. Thanks, David! I’m not surprised — he’s been a very good sport about what happened and has done many interviews about it. Kudos to him for making a lot of lemonade out of those lemons!

  3. The bigger picture here has wide ranging applications, much wider than the legal profession. To often, young and old alike, are too quick accept explanations without questioning the source. If I am visiting my doctor and the doctor provides a diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment plan that is not understandable to me, the first question out of my mouth is “why”. If I receive a response that is laced with arrogance akin to “because I went to med school, residency and have been in medial practice for a ton of years”, then my next move is to get a second opinion. A true mentor to an inexperienced colleague should never be offended by answering the “why”. In the same way that the inexperienced colleague should never fear, or be so arrogant, to ask “why”. “Question Everything”, is not merely a pithy hash tag as it can lead to improvements in methodologies across the spectrum.

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