Future of Law Practice

Lawyers replacing attorneys

After decades of killing low-end jobs in retail, travel, banks, and manufacturing, software is finally doing people’s bidding by creating a world with fewer lawyers. Lawyers are proving to be just another breed of knowledge workers susceptible to replacement by Artificial Intelligence.

New automation technologies are reshaping the law profession by allowing firms to complete legal work in a fraction of the time and with far less manpower.

Ralph Losey, a legal technology expert at the law firm Jackson Lewis predicts, “Watson, the lawyer is coming. He won’t come up with the creative solutions, but when it comes to the regular games that lawyers play, he’ll kill them.”

Automation and legal software are translating to huge cost savings for the clients of law firms and the law firms themselves are employing software to do a lot of legal work including the drafting of simple contracts, e-discovery, sorting through emails and the search for evidence in reams of documents. In a recent study, Winston and Strawn, a law firm which adopted legal review technology found that its software was more effective than human reviewers in searching relevant documents, and helped in completing the review process in about a third of the time.

This is definitely not good news for many law graduates churning out of schools. It has also made the business models unsustainable in which partners sit atop a pyramid with a fat base of associates who carry out routine and repetitive but expensively billed work.

William Henderson of Indiana University points out just how good and how long a run lawyers had. Spending on legal services grew from 0.4% of America’s GDP in 1978 to 1.8% in 2003. The legal business grew four times faster than the economy in the last quarter of the 20th century. Now, Mr Henderson says, a ‘hundred-year flood’ is hitting the profession. Not all firms will survive, and those that do will not prosper equally.

Our perspective

Most of the work at law firms consists of preparing documents and going through the cases for discovery. For entry level associates and assistants, this is all the work they do.

Online legal services companies providing pre-prepared documents, tutorials and online legal advice from experts abound in cyberspace with one of them already having 30 million users. However, they don’t even indicate a glimpse of things to come.

Eventually, all the documentation and discovery work, which form the bulk of work at a law firm, will be done by robots (essentially bots, the software robots). These robots will not get tired, nor expect pay raise or advancements and would process legal work at a fraction of time and cost. Moreover, one such robot will be able to do the work of a dozen associates.

While courtroom arguments and more nuanced lawyer work could still keep humans on the payroll, lower level procedural work -anything with a systemic component – would be taken over by robots.

Litigation would still remain rewarding. However, with more transparency, e-Governance, evidences, records and procedures getting simplified and digitised, hopefully we will be a less litigated society. These changes would bring about a very different looking law firm, structurally, with virtually no place for lower level associates or assistants. Practices would have to shift their business model to focus on advisory work and the know how of high level employees.

A likely solution for the profession is teaching business acumen to lawyers and the creation of all-in-one professional-service firms, combining lawyers, management consultants and accountants.

To survive, law firms will need to charge less, engage in alternative fee arrangements, outsource, ‘multisource’ and break legal matters down into tasks (decompose) for distribution amongst specialists. The lawyer becomes a project manager, overseeing a flexible and nimble decentralised team of multi-skilled operators.

The pace at which technology is becoming central to most industries and creating altogether new industries will sooner or later force the governments and regulators to devise new laws or amend existing ones for each industry. Ed Walters, CEO of Fastcase, a legal research software company points that at present there is limited legality around new technology, such as drones, which the FAA still regulates in essentially the same way as airplanes despite serious differences. Laws for self-driving cars also remain to be determined. Walters believes that it could also be an “exciting time to be a lawyer” because as the traditional drudge work of lawyering begins to disappear, what is left is work more challenging, creative and forward-thinking.

Walters explains that one of the main benefits of machines is their ability to assist lawyers in making data-driven decisions analysed from multiple logical angles, which otherwise are made by practitioners merely on their professional hunches. This can allow legal practitioners and scholars to enter serious legal and ethical debates.

Gazing through the crystal ball

  1. The race to the top of the advisory law firms will be narrow and tougher.
  2. The legal knowledge will not be confined to national boundaries, but will entail understanding global and multinational aspects.
  3. Litigation will remain very attractive for longer. Opt for litigation if you can afford a decent lifestyle with parental support for a few years while apprenticing with a senior lawyer in courts of law.
  4. Law will remain an attractive and interesting profession for the best and the brightest.
  5. More attractive law careers will combine law, management consulting, contracting, and accounting.
  6. Plan for independence. More and more legal employment will be small and entrepreneurial in nature, rewarding the self-starter who builds a reputation for value, effectiveness and foresight.

Professor Richard Susskind, an author and adviser to major professional firms and to national governments claims that jobs in law profession will emerge in legal project management, knowledge manipulation, legal technologies and online dispute resolution — amongst others. All these jobs will all require interdisciplinary study.

Another promising area for lawyers of tomorrow is to make law better, not just to access to justice and dispute resolution but also to dispute containment, dispute avoidance and legal health promotion.

He foresees the following career outlook for law professionals:

  1. General Counsel who with technology’s assistance can deliver more legal services to their businesses at lower costs.
  2. Intelligent, creative, innovative lawyers who can fashion and articulate new solutions and strategies for clients who have complex or high-value legal challenges. Law firms will be freed to advise on more complicated and complex matters, if legal services can be delivered online in respect of basic procedural and substantive issues.
  3. As legal services turn online, there will also be a career for lawyers who have skills in “modern techniques of standardisation and computerisation” and can provide legal technical and technological support. There is thus room for a true legal technologist – a person qualified in both law and IT.
  4. The legal knowledge engineer of the future will be required to organise the vast quantity of complex legal material to create a system that can solve many problems than to find an answer to a specific issue.
  5. Lawyers may find themselves having to diversify to stay in business, and this may lead them into the multidisciplinary path that soaks in work as strategists, management consultants and market experts. Susskind says that if commercial lawyers want to be strategy consultants, if corporate lawyers aspire to be deal brokers, and if family lawyers wish to be psychologists – and I strongly support this diversification – then this must be supported by comprehensive and rigorous training that they undertake willingly.
  6. Lawyers and advisers in online dispute resolution, legal project managers (who allocate the legal resources to the work required so that the client gets a seamless legal service package), legal management consultants and legal risk managers who will develop the sophisticated range of processes, methodologies, techniques, or systems to help their clients identify, assess, quantify, hedge, monitor, and control the plethora of risks that confront them.

Others opportunities for lawyers might include:

  • General Contractor, assembling the best team of legal professionals to achieve specific goals or solve one-off problems;
  • Knowledge Tailor, creating customized banks of legal know-how uniquely designed for specific clients;
  • Strategic Auditor, analysing organizations for legal risk, strategy disconnects, function variances and productivity leakages;
  • Accreditation Monitor, reviewing other lawyers’ continued fitness to hold a law licence on behalf of regulators;
  • Proficiency Analyst, periodically assessing an organization’s legal advisors for competence and client awareness;
  • Legal Physician, providing individual clients with annual low-cost check-ups of their family’s legal health;
  • Informal Arbiter, delivering fast, brief, non-binding “judgments” of disputes to facilitate settlements;

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