The dinosaurs vs. the digital natives

Originally posted on The National Law Journal on May 28th, 2012

the digital dinosaur vs digital nativeAre you a digital dinosaur? Usually, it depends on when you were born. People born during the late decades of the 20th century grew up with computers and don’t remember a world without modern technology; we might call them digital natives. The baby-boomers, on the other hand, remember a time when there wasn’t a computer on every desktop. All of these digital dinosaurs received their legal training and spent most of their careers roaming a predigital, pre-Internet landscape.

This creates a major challenge for law firms, because management committees comprise more digital dinosaurs than digital natives. Digital dinosaurs sometimes embrace new technologies and push for innovation, whether in social media, customer-relationship management or legal-project management. But far too often, fear wins over, and firms continue doing things the way they have always been done.

Innovative firms escape this cycle, in large part by identifying champions. I heard one such success story recently, from the accounting world. Naomi Civins, manager of the Deloitte OnLine practice, shared her experience in gaining institutional buy-in. The key was this message: “Lead from the Top.”

At Deloitte, one of the first tools they embraced was Yammer, an internal messaging system that some compare to an internal Twitter platform for organizations. Not only did Deloitte’s chief executive officer support this initiative — he became an active participant. This was crucial for two reasons: first, because it sent the message that Deloitte was serious about embracing new technology; second, because use of Yammer by the CEO gave younger associates a voice — they were part of Yammer discussions in which their ideas could seen by the CEO and he could respond to them.

I have identified a specific profile of lawyers most likely to become champions. Simply put, they are lawyers in transition. Senior associates, junior partners and lateral hires — these three groups seem to have the most success embracing social media and demonstrating measurable success. Gender doesn’t appear to be a deciding factor — much more important is hunger. Lawyers anxious to build their books of business and grow their reputations tend to make very good champions.

New associates, by contrast, aren’t completely sure what they want to do yet, or what practice best suits them, and without clear direction they may not be ready to embrace social media. Rainmakers tend to have found something that works, and they usually stick to it.

Even if your firm has more digital dinosaurs than digital natives, there is still hope. The great thing about technology is that as it advances, it becomes easier to use. Social media are more accessible today than ever. This means that no matter when you were born, you may still have the potential to make a great social-media champion for your organization.

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