Par ITU Pictures —, CC BY 2.0,

Someday will most of the "lawyers" in law firms be robots?

This question is not as theoretical, nor as far in the future, as most lawyers think.

I think that the answer is "yes."

And "someday" is a lot sooner than most of us realize.

Artificial intelligence is a frequent feature in the recent wave of prognostications about the "law firm of the future." However, many of these predictions are fundamentally -- and lethally -- flawed, because they are based on the erroneous assumption that AI will simply be an extension of current law firm technology.

AI will fundamentally disrupt, not continue, the practice of law as we know it today; and this disruption will lead to the competitive failure of many of today's successful law firms. 

more than a bigger, better computer

Technology will certainly continue to speed up routine functions in law firms; and, if properly managed by robust quality assurance policies and processes, it will reduce the errors and rework that can cut deeply into profitability. But that will not be enough for small and midsize law firms to continue to compete with their bigger rivals.

The most important factor that many law firm planners and their strategic advisors appear to overlook is that an AI installation in a law firm will not just be a bigger, better, faster, (and probably more expensive) computer system. Instead, it is the sophisticated analytical and learning capabilities, which are already the defining characteristics of genuine artificial intelligence, that will make the difference.

This defining learning capability will make AI systems an extension of a lawyer's mind, not a substitute for it.

coming soon to a law firm near you

Imagine, therefore, a law firm in which one partner, supported by AI systems, will be able to produce the volume of legal services that it takes a partner and three or four associates to develop and deliver today -- the equivalent of more than 6,000 of today's billable hours per year. AI will be a tremendous intellectual force multiplier, which will allow even the smallest organizations delivering legal services [1] to compete very successfully and more profitably, even as downward pressure on legal fees continues.

"Leverage" -- one of the most important traditional drivers of law firm profitability -- will no longer be measured as the ratio of partners to associates. Instead, it will be the ratio of hours produced by lawyers to those produced by AI systems.

The competitive struggles in the legal markets of the 2020s and 2030s will not be a contest between "Big Law" and smaller firms. Instead it will be between "Better Law" -- AI-empowered legal services organizations of all sizes -- and traditional firms that are unable or unwilling to anticipate and respond to the profound paradigm shifts that are already reshaping the practice of law.

This is why Walker Clark already advises our strategy clients about how to include the potential of artificial intelligence as a central part of their strategic priorities -- not just for 2025 or 2030, but right now. As the legal industry begins to change faster than the speed of thought, firms that adopt an attitude of  "wait and see what the competition does" will be left behind.

Norman Clark. 


Click here for more information about Walker Clark strategic services to law firms.



[1] I purposely refrain from using the term "law firm," because it is questionable that the traditional law firm will still be an economically viable service-delivery structure by the mid-2030s, except for small, specialized retail practices. Click here to read more about the differences between commercial law firms and retail law firms.