Mayer said Lexis and Westlaw are only two implements in the legal researcher's toolbox, but that the ability to use non-legal research tools on the Internet has now become a basic requirement.
"Lawyers are knowledge workers and are expected to be adept at finding and verifying information all the time in their work," said Mayer.
He said knowledge of PowerPoint is also a plus, but is part of the "larger skill set of excellent presentation or oral-advocacy skills." This skill is important for students who plan to do litigation or trial work. He said if one's career path does not put him/her in the courtroom, then PowerPoint is not as important.
Catherine Sanders Reach, MLIS, Acting Director of the Legal Technology Resource Center of the American Bar Association, believes most firms expect law students to enter law firms with general computer knowledge and knowledge of general office programs.
"Firms expect a basic familiarity with Westlaw and Lexis, but they also likely expect to have to do training to hone new attorneys' skills," explained Reach. "Since Westlaw and Lexis are free in law school, new attorneys often experience 'sticker shock' at the research charges incurred and need to be taught to use the research systems more efficiently."
Wells H. Anderson, is President of Active Practice, LLC, a firm that works with attorneys who want to upgrade their computer systems and with law offices that want better ways to manage information. He presents regularly on legal technology topics at conferences, including the American Bar Association Techshow, LegalTech conferences in the U.S. and Canada, and Legal Sys-Tech in Singapore. Anderson said small firms tend to look to new associates for insight onto how to make better use of technology. He said new associates may be asked to evaluate new software and advise on which products are most suitable for the firm.
"Partners in small firms want to hire associates, one, who will learn the ropes quickly and assume significant workloads on existing matters and, two, who can attract new clients," explained Anderson. "If the associates can show that their technological skills allow them to be more productive and do a more effective job of seeking out new clients, those skills will be valued."
Do law schools equip students with basic tech skills needed in today's law firms?
"Law schools are not training about the practical technical aspects of law practice. They have their hands full teaching the general law school curriculum and basic legal research," said Reach.
Mayer said that some law schools have indeed started teaching law practice courses that include usage of law practice management tools such as case-management systems; litigation-support software; and advanced-presentation tools, including video and demonstrative evidence.
"Law schools are struggling with this issue. They want to give students the skills they need to perform in practice, but they cannot give them specific skills with specific software that the student may not see in practice. It is always hard to teach the abstract skills without real-world examples to drive home the point," said Mayer.
Mayer added that basic skills in the use of spreadsheets and databases can be useful and are only "the tip of the expected skill set" for lawyers.
"Law firms are probably not making this an explicit requirement, but rather see it as a part of the larger package," said Mayer. "The knowledge is important, but it is easily obtained through books, the Internet, or non-credit courses outside of law school."
Robert Meek, chair of the recruiting committee of Foley & Lardner, said while they expect proficiency in Westlaw and Lexis, there is less emphasis on the need for expertise in spreadsheets and databases at their firm. "It isn't a matter of not caring, but the lack of such a skill set does not make a difference to employment decisions. They learn these skills as needed on the job, and our firm provides training support as necessary," said Meek.
Indeed, many law firms, keeping up with technological advances, have offered training to their attorneys. Meek said tech tools are helpful to practice, and their firm provides such training and support.
"We certainly do spend to train these skills. It is really a question of when and to what extent the skills are needed. If people don't use the skills in law school, they are going to need training at the point they do need to come into play," said Meek. "Given most law school curricula, it probably makes sense for firms to provide the training if it is necessary for the practice of the particular firm."
Anderson said that small firms vary widely in the extent to which they exploit technology. He said those that are more technology savvy often find that client satisfaction increases along with partner incomes. "If a firm has implemented practice-management software and document-assembly software, a new attorney who is familiar with these applications and their potential for the firm has an advantage," said Anderson.
Mayer said he believes firms expect new lawyers to be well organized, which includes their research skills and the briefs they write. However, he does not believe firms expect law students to have expertise in a specific skill set in tech tools. He said large law firms have established practices (matter-management systems, knowledge-management systems, document-management systems, etc.) that they expect the new hire to be able to work with and master.
"Just as law school aims to teach students to think like a lawyer instead of perform specific practice tasks, law students need to know how to use many different information systems instead of the commands and capabilities of any specific piece of software," Mayer said.
Mayer also noted that knowledge of Excel and Access is good too. However, he said it is not the particular tool that is important, but rather what it can do and when it should be used to make lawyering more efficient. "Technical literacy has come to the point that experience with a specific tool is less important than knowledge about how to apply different types of tools to different information-organization problems," said Mayer.
Technological expertise can not only prove an advantage when working in a law firm, but can also have its benefits down the line.
"Knowledge about running a law firm as a business and using legal-specific software to do that is highly valuable for new attorneys who want to assume more responsibility in small firms and for new attorneys who may want to start their own law practices after several years as an associate," said Anderson.
Whether taught in law school or gained through work experience, technological knowledge is certainly an advantage for today's attorney.
"Firms are using technology tools more and more often, so any attorney who knows how to use these tools, whether self-taught or otherwise, is in a better position," said Reach.