Most law firms are at work on their 2005 budgets. In considering technology budgets, it’s interesting to ponder when something “new” is no longer new. This is no mere philosophic question; I believe the answer affects how firms make decisions. 

I started thinking about “newness” last week when I saw articles about blogs in both the Wall Street Journal and the October issue of the Corporate Legal Times. Every periodical I read – general, business, legal, and technology – has covered blogs. So let’s stipulate that blogs are no longer “new.”

Then I started thinking about just what does “new” mean and does it matter. I can’t define “new” but it seems to me that faced with something “new,” decision-makers must (1) have knowledge about the subject and (2) “frame” the subject appropriately, that is, figure how it fits with what is already in place.

Proponents of the new in law firms should be aware that decision-makers may lack both knowledge and an appropriate framework. Moreover, they face skepticism and a high burden of proof. That seems ineffective and inefficient to me.

When every periodical has reported on a new thing, then the presumption and burden of proof should shift. Take blogs as an example: a lawyer proposing that his or firm create substantive blogs should not have to explain what a blog is. The discussion needs to be framed around communications, marketing, and client service, not around technology. (I happen to think firms should have blogs, but the point here is that it is not a tech decision.)

Similarly, e-discovery is not new. So lawyers should no longer need an explanation of what metadata is and why it is important. A litigator who has not seen and read article about this topic is verging, in my opinion, on committing malpractice. And the framework of discussion about it needs to shift away from pure technology to case strategy given the tech issues.

If I am correct here, and I admit my ideas are embryonic, then I can crystallize the problem: lawyers as decision-makers often have trouble coping with the new. I have had many experiences where I’ve read repeatedly about a topic and, when I mention it, a lawyer looks at me blankly. Lawyers who lack awareness of the world around them should not be firm managers.

And for those who do know about the new, especially if it is technology, tend to frame the new as a technology issue. That tendency is ill-advised as it allows the decision maker to avoid business, competitive, and strategic considerations. In effect, the subconscious script is “well, this is technology, I’ll let the CIO worry about it – I don’t have know anything or do anything.”

CIOs are not acquitted from their duty to educate partners and other decision makers. But that duty only goes so far. Lawyers as decision-makers must grapple with the new. First, they need to read and know what is happening. And second, they need to frame the issue correctly. A Cisco router upgrade or new Intel chip can safely be relegated to the realm of pure technology. But much of the new is only disguised as technology. Lawyers need to take more responsibility for understanding the implications and framing the right questions.