Christie, among other areas of research, is involved in helping the firm better understand the opportunities around legal AI and other new types of legal technology.
We discussed how law firms need to shape their thinking and approach to adopting AI and what practical issues lawyers need to grapple with when it comes to integrating this new technology into their firm.
Earlier, we discussed how legal AI will impact the future of work from a human resources point of view. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being very little impact and 10 being ‘the full Susskind’ i.e. the end of lawyers, where do you see things heading in the next five years?
My sense is that many employees will be heavily impacted by AI over the course of the next few years. We have all seen countless reports and statistics about how many jobs will be replaced by AI in the coming years. For example, a recent International Bar Association report estimated that a third of graduate level jobs will be replaced.
However, I personally don’t subscribe to the notion that robots will ever fully replace lawyers, instead AI will be augmenting a lawyer’s ability to take critical decisions and to think strategically in the best interests of their client. I do, however, think it is clear that AI has the potential to eliminate some low-level cognitive tasks in the immediate short and medium term. I also believe that AI technologies will continue to evolve over the next 5-10 years to the point that machine learning technologies, in particular, will be able to provide meaningful analyses and automate certain tasks at the higher end of the cognitive scale.
In this context, I think the impact on resourcing will be threefold:
(1) Business models – Law firms’ business models will need to change to accommodate new ways of working as a result of AI. From a strategic perspective, this will particularly affect how law firms resource and manage their people. This will mean that HR functions will need to continue advising on strategies for attracting and retaining top talent, and for reshaping the pyramid resource structure into something that is supported by both technology and other professions – along the lines of what BCG and Bucerius identified as the ‘rocket structure’ in their 2016 report;
(2) Unemployment v redeployment – Richard and Daniel Susskind framed the debate, in their recent lecture on the future of work, as being one of unemployment vs redeployment.
If we look to other professional services who are facing the same challenges we see these two different responses, and it remains to be seen which approach the legal industry will take. I think it is almost certain that AI will disrupt some parts of the legal value chain and that this will change the face of elements of the profession. Given where the technology is at the moment, it is the bottom of the pyramid that seems likely to be the most affected, though how these roles will change and what the timing of these changes will be is unclear.
However, in this debate, I favour the ‘redeployment’ approach. I think it is clear that new roles will emerge which are critical to an AI-enabled law firm and redeployment will be a viable option in many cases. New roles of the future will include project and product managers, data scientists and legal technologists and, while the traditional legal role will evolve, the opportunities for the lawyer of the future should outweigh the threats.
At Ashurst we have already adopted some of these new roles and have made investments in our legal technologist capability within our Ashurst Advance team – some of whom are ex-lawyers or law graduates.
(3) Performance and skills – Emotional intelligence, critical thinking and strategic decision making will become much more important as lawyers look to differentiate themselves in a world of automation. In this environment, performance can and should be much more focused on these kinds of skills and their associated outputs. Firms will need to ensure that lawyers have the opportunity to develop and enhance their skills through training, in order to ensure that there is a continuous pipeline of highly skilled future partners.
One aspect of the human resources issue and AI is how law firms approach the question of moving paralegals and junior associates up the value chain as more process work becomes automated. As someone who works inside a very large and busy law firm, do you feel there is enough ‘room’ inside the business to accommodate the movement up the value chain?
Yes I do. On the one hand, many large law firms have already grappled with this issue in recent years. By disaggregating legal work and pushing out more routine and repeatable work to near-shoring centres firms have already facilitated a move up the chain for lawyers. However, the automation of routine and repeatable tasks will mean that firms need to consider whether to move near-shoring staff up the value chain, and therefore push legal staff even further.
Ashurst undertook some client research in 2016 which showed that clients want their lawyers to be much more strategic, and this move of lawyers up the value chain through automation of tasks should really be seen as an opportunity to meet this important client need.
Another interesting issue we explored before was whether moving associates up the value chain will put pressure on firms to change the way they do on-the-job training. For example, if associates no longer do work that is dull, but helps train them on key commercial law concepts, will they need to be trained in extra classes by partners or others? If we advance people up the chain, do they need extra education to prepare them for this faster progression?
The legal career path is unlike most other professions in that it broadly follows a fairly defined pathway. However, given the need we just discussed around changes to our value chains, there is a need to think about how firms ensure lawyers are equipped for their new advanced position in that chain. In the absence of the routine foundational learning experiences that we have previously relied on to train lawyers, law firms will need to be creative about how they facilitate this move up the chain.
At Ashurst we don’t believe that lawyers need to pore over due diligence exercises to develop into good lawyers so the automation of routine legal tasks through AI is seen as an opportunity rather than a threat. However, lawyers do need to learn certain skills, ranging from EQ to technology, to operate effectively in an AI-enabled value chain. Future learning, in that case, might take a different approach and include accelerated training and mentoring schemes. In other cases, more widespread use of creative solutions such as work allocation, which Ashurst adopted several years ago, will ensure lawyers have the opportunity to gain a broader range of experience in order to move quickly up the chain.
Do you think law schools are even ready for what will soon be happening because of legal AI and other legal tech? I.e. do they know what their law students need to be equipped with in terms of knowledge?
I think there are some very creative law schools who have grasped the challenge and are working to prepare lawyers for the future of work. Stanford Law School’s CodeX, Ulster University’s Legal Innovation Centre and Ryerson University’s Legal Innovation Zone are just a few examples of law schools embracing the challenge to be creative and to equip the lawyers of the future with the skills they will need in a tech-enabled legal industry.
In law schools it is the educators who will drive these changes forward and I think that law firms can and should work much more closely with them. However, I don’t think that law firms’ will necessarily need their lawyers to know how to code. That being said, I do think that legal education should absolutely seek to revolutionise the way future lawyers are taught to interact with the law in a technology-enabled workplace.
There has been some quite robust discussion recently about the idea that law firms that are exploring the use of AI are not communicating well with their clients. Some clients say they being told nothing is happening by partners, while others find that partners cannot explain what they are doing with AI. It seems that although some firms are making use of AI, large parts of these firms don’t really know what it means or how to ‘sell’ it to the clients. How can firms address this knowledge gap?
There may be a perceived knowledge gap, but I think that building close relationships between the partners, who know their clients and understand their needs, and other expertise within the business, who understand the technology well and can offer other unique services to meet client needs, is the best way of addressing this. However the focus should always be on delivering client service, rather than on the technology that enables that service.
We have seen some great successes for our clients when our Ashurst Advance teams have collaborated with legal teams, particularly our legal technologists who have worked very closely on a number of AI-enabled transactions. In our experience however, client satisfaction is driven more by the end result of effective and efficient service delivery than it is by the enabling technologies.
There has also been a lot of discussion about the need for law firms to present ‘products’ created from new legal tech, whether via AI or other systems. This is because some lawyers don’t like the idea of selling on efficiency. How can lawyers approach this, after all it’s easy to say a law firm should ‘productise’ its legal tech offering, but perhaps harder to achieve in reality. How do you think firms can approach this better?
With limited exceptions, very few law firms are seeking to be software houses and therefore the key to successful productisation is simply to identify technology which can best support a firm’s IP, and can turn that into client value.
We strive to do this at Ashurst and one example of this is the creation of an International Sanctions Portal, which takes our market-leading expertise in sanctions regimes and makes it accessible and relevant to clients online, leveraging the latest legal software. Targeted use of technology that improves our clients’ experience should be what we are striving to achieve through productisation.
You said earlier that ‘introducing legal AI into a law firm is not about technology, it’s about change management’, which sounds totally right. Could you expand on that a little? Does this mean it’s really all about behaviour change?
The implementation of any technology, particularly newer ones like AI technologies, is fundamentally a change management exercise. Lawyers and clients are absolutely critical to the adoption of new technologies, particularly where they are required to actually utilise the technology first hand. If they don’t understand the technology, or don’t accept the reasons for change then the technology simply won’t be adopted. Equally, a lack of buy-in means that the technology won’t be used in a way that maximises the benefits it is often intended to drive.
In the former case, it becomes a white elephant and in the latter it becomes a potentially expensive marketing tool that may win occasional pitches, but doesn’t necessarily increase profitability. However, if time is spent to establish the problem the technology is trying to solve, and that clients and staff understand the reasons and benefits then the value can be maximised. I think it is very important to remember that technology is not the innovation, the way it is applied to how we deliver our legal services is where the true innovation lies and the effectiveness of that delivery is completely dependent upon people – irrespective of how technologically brilliant a piece of software is.
And finally, I understand that Ashurst is piloting some legal AI systems. How is all of that going and what has been the reaction internally so far?
We have spent the last 18 months piloting Kira Systems and have now rolled this out to our Australian and UK offices. The pilots were very successful, and we have had a lot of positive feedback from the transaction teams. The roll out is an iterative one, but we have expert resource from our Ashurst Advance Legal Technologist team, who support the legal teams directly. Our experience is that there is enthusiasm for the technology amongst the legal teams and that it truly does solve a problem for them and for our clients.
We are also piloting a number of different AI technologies that will enable us to continue to innovate and improve both our client service and our internal efficiency.