Last month, I had the privilege of participating in a spirited panel discussion at the second annual Above the Law Converge Conference at the University Club in New York City. The panel examined the future of legal practice, specifically exploring the impact of emerging technology on legal careers. Joining me were Dr. Silvia Hodges-Silverstein, Executive Director and Founder of Buying Legal Council, Jessica Hunt, Managing Director of Axiom, and Rakesh Madhava, CEO of Nextpoint. Elie Mystal, Media Editor at Large at Breaking Media, moderated the session.
A central message I sought to convey is that the future of law is already here. With the proliferation of automated legal tools, we are witnessing a wave of new methodologies that reduce or eliminate tedious legal tasks. There is a burgeoning legal technology scene that the world needs to hear more about.
Three main issues arose during the panel discussion.
What will happen to our jobs if “robots” take over?
No lawyer wants to be replaced by technology. However, technology has long since been automating legal tasks. For instance, we have been conducting legal research by using search engines with complex algorithms versus going to libraries and thumbing leather-bound books; e-discovery tools automatically sift through millions of pages to identify relevant documents; for decades, redlining software has been performing document comparison, a process previously done by hand. We often take for granted automated tasks precisely because we no longer have to concern ourselves with doing them manually.
The phenomenon of technology automating manual tasks will only accelerate, but I do not envision a dystopian future. Although technology is taking over many aspects of lawyers’ jobs, automated tools are adept at rescuing lawyers from low-level and repetitive tasks, such as document management, contract review, filing, docketing, billing, and accounting, which bear little connection to law practice but increasingly consume much of lawyers’ time. In fact, according to a survey of 500 lawyers nationwide, more than 50 percent of the respondents ranked administrative or practice management tasks as the top activities eating up the majority of non-billable work hours.
The rise of machine learning and other artificial intelligence technologies means that lawyers can shift their focus from grunt work to the meaningful practice of law. Instead of paper pushing, lawyers can now perform work that clients truly value, i.e., the work of the intellect. In effect, automation is not eliminating jobs, but reallocating time to allow lawyers to engage in the analytical, creative, and strategic parts of legal practice.
Will there be a trend of smaller firms and solo practitioners starting their own practices?
For many lawyers, the business administration associated with the practice of law is a major hindrance to forming boutique firms or solo practices. If we could adopt technology to eliminate most of the menial, administrative tasks, we would see a proliferation of smaller firms and solo practitioners focused on delivering value to clients. Lawyers will have more time to pursue specialized legal work, which is often an important differentiator for smaller firms. I predict also that the increase in cheaper practice management tools will break down barriers for lawyers to launch smaller practices.
What should law schools do to train future lawyers?
Many law schools are ill-equipped to train their students on legal technology and tools that are widely available today. Law school pedagogy, which relies on appellate court rulings and the case method devised nearly 150 years ago, bears little semblance to the reality of legal practice.
Law schools must innovate their curriculums by incorporating technology as part of a larger interdisciplinary approach to enhance the practice of law and, in particular, to train future lawyers to more effectively and efficiently deliver legal services—whether representing large corporations or advocating on behalf of indigent individuals. Schools should consider offering coursework, clinics, internships, and conferences that focus on legal technology. A good example is the Stanford Program in Law, Science & Technology, which positions Stanford Law School to be a leader in shaping the trajectory of legal technology, as well preparing its students to be innovative legal practitioners and thinkers.
The Converge Conference is aptly named as we seek to shed light on what the convergence of law and technology means for our industry. Increased automation will help lawyers focus more on the analytical part of their work, lead more lawyers to open up specialized, boutique practices, and hopefully motivate law schools to make technology an integral part of their curriculums. As we continue to map the future of the legal industry, I have no doubt that technology, especially automation software, will remain a significant catalyst for further changes.