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A lawyer’s duty of technological competence

you have a duty of technological competence, but what does that mean?

It’s a little bit shocking that California – home to Silicon Valley, countless technology companies, and critical technological innovations – was the 39th state to enact a rule of technological competence for lawyers. In fact, that rule didn’t become effective until March 2021.

Meanwhile, legal technology has evolved and advanced at the speed of light over the past two decades. Today, a lawyer can file court documents, have them served, and monitor case progress online. Artificial intelligence assists with e-discovery, legal research, and document management.

Additionally, lawyers are expected to have some level of competence in those processes.

In this article, we’re going to talk about a legal professional’s duty of technological competence. We use California rules and guidelines to explore this concept, but the rules discussed here are very similar in most other states. Check with your state bar for specific language in your state.

What does this all mean for your day-to-day practice? Let’s break it down.

What the rules say about technological competence

In order to understand a California lawyer’s duty of technological competence, we must approach the issue like any other legal problem – we’ll start with the rules.

The rule that we’re concerned with here is found in Comment 1 to California Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1 dealing with “Competence.”

Rule 1.1 is stated in the negative. It tells lawyers they must not “intentionally, recklessly, with gross negligence, or repeatedly fail to perform legal services with competence.” (Rule 1.1(a).)

It goes on to explain that “competence” in this context applies to “the (i) learning and skill, and (ii) mental, emotional, and physical ability reasonably necessary for the performance of such service.” (Rule 1.1(b).)

Comment 1 then adds that competence includes “the duty to keep abreast of the changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.”

Let’s break that down into more practical terms.

Download the free InfoTrack eBook: Meeting tech competence expectations in your state

What does tech competence mean from a practical (and legal) perspective? More importantly, what are the consequences if you don’t take it seriously? Get all the details in this free eBook download.

Practical implications for California lawyers

Interestingly, California’s formal enactment of Rule 1.1, Comment 1 became effective about a year after it was desperately needed.

In the year 2020, of course, the United States was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and most of California was in lockdown. That meant that even the old-guard lawyers who were still doing things like handwriting briefs and filing documents in-person were forced to practice via remote technologies.

Never was technological incompetence more dangerous to the legal profession.

Not surprisingly, some of the only true, post-enactment analysis of Rule 1.1, Comment 1 addressed this issue head-on. In a draft opinion, the California State Bar Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct considered “a California lawyer’s ethical duties when working remotely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic or another disaster situation.”

Among other things, the opinion suggested that lawyers should have the technological competence to turn off the listening functions of smart speakers like Alexa or Siri while discussing client matters in the home.

How many of your firm’s Luddites would even understand that suggestion?

To date, the most practical interpretation of California’s technological competency rule has come from the press and industry watchers. They’ve suggested that California attorneys can demonstrate base-level technological competence by understanding things like:

  • Video conferencing
  • Secure file transfers
  • Research, brief-writing, time-tracking, and calendaring software
  • Email
  • Data risks


Of course, with every passing day, this list continues to grow.

Why your firm should take tech competence to the next level

Admittedly, California attorneys still need and deserve much guidance about the level of technological competence required by Rule 1.1, Comment 1. That may or may not come quickly.

In the meantime, however, why not embrace a technical revolution that will undoubtedly continue to morph the legal landscape by taking your firm’s tech competence to the next level? Here are just a few of the numerous benefits of embracing technology:


For the most part, technology aims to make workflow more efficient. This has certainly been the case with legal technologies and that trend is likely to continue.

For example, who can deny that online legal research is faster, more efficient, and more effective than toiling away in dusty law libraries?

Early adoption has its benefits

There are undeniable benefits to having your firm be an early adopter of legal technology. Among them are:

  • Long-term technological advantages over competitors
  • The ability to shape technology as it grows
  • Creating the perception that you’re a cutting-edge firm to attract clients
  • Competitive advantages as you are the first to benefit from new tools and efficiencies
  • Easier recruiting for top new talent

Hiring and retention

The lawyers just coming out of law school were brought up in a purely technological world. They’re used to having automated processes and may have a general disregard for traditional methods of practice that make things more difficult for them.

It’s not surprising, then, that being tech-savvy is a great tool for hiring and retention.

Grow geographically with little investment

In the past, it was highly inefficient for small law firms in large states like California to practice outside of a one-or-two county radius.

Travel expenses were high. It was difficult to find process servers in remote locations. It was nearly impossible to research local court rules without being in the county law library.

Today, however, things like finding remote process servers is as easy as logging into your computer.

Local rules are all online. Depositions can be conducted virtually. In other words, there is an entire world of clients and cases available to you that may have been inaccessible in the past, and your geographically distant issues are just as quick as your local ones.

Final thoughts

In California, things tend to evolve quickly.

Even though the Golden State was late to formally adopt a technological competency rule, you can bet that technological advances in the legal profession will continue to propagate. Why not ride the wave of technology and become a more competent practitioner along the way?

Want to dig deeper into your duty of technological competence?

Download the free InfoTrack eBook: Meeting tech competence expectations in your state


  • Jennifer Anderson

    Jennifer Anderson is the founder of Attorney To Author, where she helps legal professionals bring their book projects to life. She was a California attorney for nearly two decades before becoming a freelance writer, marketing/branding consultant, ghostwriter, and writing coach. Her upcoming book, Breaking Out of Writer's Block, Exercises and inspirations for getting the words out of your head and onto the page, is due out in September 2023.

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