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But artificial intelligence will be as much a part of the "law firm of the future" as desks and paper have been for the past 200 years.

It also can be part of the "law firm of today."

The World Economic Forum recently published an important article on the impact of automation on jobs. It has important implications for law firms, especially small ones.

"One. That's how many careers automation has eliminated in the last 60 years"  by Sarah Kessler summarizes the findings of economist James Bessen that only one of the 270 detailed occupations listed in the 1950 U.S. Census has since been eliminated by automation: elevator operator.

Nonetheless, a recent McKinsey study indicated that automation could replace up to 35% of professional services jobs. Our firm's analysis of opportunities for sustainable improvements in profitability in law firms strongly suggest four important forecasts concerning the impact of artificial intelligence:

  • As with traditional approaches to work process reengineering in law firms, the principal effects that artificial intelligence will have on the profitability of law firms will come from greater fee earner productivity, especially for partners and other senior lawyers, more so than from reduced costs.
  • Most jobs in law firms will not be eliminated, but they will be transformed. Law firms that assume that artificial intelligence will eliminate some clerical and administrative jobs are, at best, only half correct. Many of the functions now performed by junior associates, trainees, and paralegals, such as research, preliminary analysis of a matter, and document preparation, will be substantially reduced almost to the point of elimination. Computers will not replace these junior fee earners, but they could reduce the number that a law firm will need to maintain a profitable work-flow leverage.
  • To get the best benefits from artificial intelligence, law firms must rethink their assumptions about how they manage the preparation and delivery of legal services to clients. Automating an inefficient, marginally profitable work process does not make it better, only faster. This is why reliance on the paradigms and practices that have shaped law firm operations in the past -- no matter how successful they have been -- are unreliable guides to the future. 
  • The total return on investment, both tangible and intangible, in artificial intelligence might be higher for small and midsize firms, because of its ability to help these firms remain competitive and profitable, especially in the retail sector of the legal services industry and in price-sensitive practice areas.

The most important thing is to start now to consider how artificial intelligence and other improvements in information technology and communications can transform the law firm of today. If we wait for the "law firm of the future" to arrive, it will be too late ever to catch up.

Norman Clark