Legal tech is there to make lawyers’ lives easier, right? And so it should, in theory, help to reduce burn out. But, is that really the case? Does legal tech’s efficiency translate into less stress and exhaustion for lawyers? Artificial Lawyer has a look at the issues and hears from a range of experts.
The Key Issues
You can use a litigation research tool to quickly find what you need, rather than spending a whole day in a law library. Doc automation and digital templates massively speed up the production of simple contracts. Transaction management systems allow junior lawyers to focus on the deal, not just basic things such as collecting signatures.
So, all of this should mean happier, less exhausted lawyers, who have had the ‘donkey work’ taken off their desks. Now they can focus on more interesting and higher value work, and that should mean more satisfied lawyers and better well-being throughout the firm. Or, at least that’s the theory.
But……now come all the caveats. What if your firm is selling your time in order to make money? If that’s the case then even if you finish task A very quickly the firm still needs you to work many additional hours to complete tasks B, C, D and E, in order to generate the kind of profits the partners expect to receive.
I.e. freeing up your time only means you still have to fill in that time once more with additional billable work – if you operate within the time-based legal economy. And, to be fair, even a firm that had 100% fixed fees may also press its lawyers to work very long hours in order to push through more client matters each week, in order to make more profit. So tech on its own may not be a cure.
Plus, not every tech tool frees you from labour. Some tools chain you to them and create new kinds of labour. So, for example, doc analysis tools may speed due diligence, but a team of people has to work with these tools to do the NLP training and review work.
In some cases it may make sense for the firm to create a dedicated group to work with NLP software, thereby making the tech not a pathway to escape to other matters, but instead a specialised area of labour where you might stay for a very long time. We can see the same with eDiscovery tools, where large teams spend their careers working with the software.
This then raises the question: what is legal tech actually for?
If it doesn’t make the lives of the lawyers and those that work with them any better, if work carries on getting more of a burden, with longer hours, more pressure, and more exhaustion, then what are we all doing? Is tech there just to make legal businesses a bit more profitable? Is that it?
As the experts below explore, much of the answer comes down to culture – or more specifically what kind of culture you want as a firm.
If for example you had a fixed X number of hours to work each week as a lawyer at a large firm, and could use tech to zap through the less exciting stuff, then you could avoid burn out and also have a more meaningful job. So, legal tech could be really useful, and really help with reducing burn out.
But, are we moving in that direction?
Below are the views of a number of experts, all of whom either currently work or previously worked at large law firms.
April Brousseau, Director of Research & Development, Clifford Chance
In my view, legal technology has the potential to make lawyers more productive and more effective but it isn’t likely to impact burnout rates unless we focus more on how we spend the time that legal technology might create for us. I think that addressing the real issue of burnout is a bigger question about culture and change and not one of technology.
(April also recommended a book by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, called ‘It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work’. Just the introduction is full of excellent views, such as ‘sustained exhaustion is not a badge of honour’.)
Julia Salasky – Legl CEO and former associate at Linklaters
Lawyer burn out can be summarised quite easily: the constant and unrelenting pressure to bill more hours. But there is little to no support to remove the day-to-day admin that makes “billing more” an achievable or realistic goal for most lawyers.
LegalTech that provides a proper digital backbone to law firm operations, that removes the time-consuming admin, all whilst harnessing meaningful data insight that can help to inform where there are gaps in processes/ further process improvements to be made, can be low hanging fruit that delivers a lasting impact. Happy lawyers are doing meaningful, substantive work which uses their exceptional intellect and expertise, not on pushing paper around or ticking boxes on admin.
Happy lawyers expect to be able to work remotely, now and in the future, whether occasionally, regularly or full-time. They need to have ways of working that are 21st century and that enable them to pick up the kids after school, avoid a 2 hour commute, or to take a break to go for a run during the day. To be able to work remotely or hybrid, lawyers need to correct LegalTech in place to support. Whether onboarding new clients, or managing payments from clients, or getting documents securely and digitally, lawyers need to have the right tech to support effective remote working practises.
Ultimately, culture comes from the top, and LegalTech can’t solve all the problems here. But LegalTech can support the creation of an effective workplace, that enables lawyers to focus on substantive work, and enables teams to work effectively under remote and hybrid working models. Management teams at law firms should be engaging with LegalTech to understand where it can help to relieve pressure on lawyers, to streamline time-consuming processes and to support a remote/hybrid working culture.
Stuart Whittle, Weightmans, Partner and Head of Innovation
I genuinely believe technology can help and automate, in particular, the mundane and routine tasks that no one really likes to do. With a caveat. Fundamentally, all technology is ‘If this, then that’. And if the ‘if’ doesn’t happen then the ‘then’ doesn’t happen.
So, unless your people are working in the way the technology is anticipating they will work, all that happens if you throw computers at the problem is that you just end up with faster and more efficient chaos.
In this context, technology isn’t going to be a solution in and of itself unless you have nailed your process and helped your people work within the process so that the technology can do what it is designed to do.
Emma Jackson, Client Innovation Manager, Mills & Reeve
I think Legal tech does have the ability to reduce burnout and improve lawyer satisfaction levels if it is intuitive to use and implemented well. The last 2 years have taken their toll on all of us and we are reaching a crunch point where even the most efficient people don’t have enough of themselves left to throw at a problem in order to fix it. This is where Legal Technology can step in and ease some of the burden.
A good example of this is contract review technology which takes the mind-numbing leg work out of reading large volumes of contracts and instead leaves the lawyer with the analytical job at the end, which is the bit that they spent all those years training for.
Tech however only works as well as it is implemented. This means making it easily accessible for lawyers that want to use it and where it forms part of an effective process without added bureaucracy. Without these two elements it could serve to make things worse by layering on an additional burden to an already inefficient system.
Richard Mabey, CEO, Juro – and former lawyer at Freshfields
In our 2021 GC survey, 70% of in-house lawyers said they felt they are weighed down by low value tasks.
An endless to-do list, unfiltered requests coming into their inbox, no real workflow or prioritisation. We hear this frequently and all of these things contribute to burn-out.
Legal tech is one part of the solution. Automating low value tasks frees up legal to have more impact and to feel a sense of achievement. Equally, ordering tasks in a clear structure can reduce cognitive load and help reduce noise.
At Juro, we often start with automating simple contracts like NDAs. Often the self-serve workflows mean that there is no lawyer involvement. This helps efficiency and in doing so reduces burn-out risk.
Graeme Johnston, founder, Juralio, and former Herbert Smith Freehills partner
I suspect that the natural tendency of tech in law is, paradoxically, to exacerbate overwork and hence burnout. First, because the tendency in law seems to be to use efficiency gains to make things longer and more complicated, rather than to do the same thing more efficiently or – heaven forbid – make it simpler.
And secondly, because the problem multiplies when others have to review and respond to those longer, more complicated things. Tech isn’t going to help with burnout unless certain cultural and process topics are thoughtfully addressed by organisations and individuals in ways which go beyond optimising for short term profit or cost saving.
If these issues are in future tackled more meaningfully, this may lead to people involved in law paying more attention to tech which doesn’t simply help you to go faster or do more, or bill more; but which instead helps you with things like simplification, communicating in more digestible ways, better matching value, risk and cost, allocating work more appropriately, and getting better at planning. I think those are the sorts of things that can help with burnout. But unless the more fundamental topics are addressed, tech in itself can’t help.
David Wang, Wilson Sonsini’s Chief Innovation Officer
Legal tech can be a part of the solution but it only goes so far. We have seen dramatic reductions on the hours required to perform a specific task/item based on efficiency improvements from legal tech, but on the aggregate if the attorneys are just taking on more matters with that time you freed up, you are getting a benefit from a business perspective but the overall hours impact is not improved as far as helping with burnout.
However, there’s a qualitative aspect of this which is harder to measure, in that the nature of the hours in the aggregate ‘improve’ to more interesting/less repetitive in theory. We don’t however have any data there so I can’t make any conclusions on that front.
And here is also a comment from Bryon Bratcher, MD, Gravity Stack (Part of Reed Smith), which just came through last night:
Lawyer burnout is an incredibly complex topic with a lot of factors at play. The fact that lawyers sometimes have to manually complete high volume tasks that feel like they could be automated with technology — indeed one of the promises of legal tech — is just one factor. If anything, lawyers having to stare at screens, whether it’s Microsoft Word or a fancy analytics dashboard may be part of what is contributing to burnout. What I can tell you is that our team at Gravity Stack is focused in 2022 on implementing technology that we think will help legal departments retain talent. Cost savings and efficiency have been traditional KPIs but improving the lawyer work experience is now just as much of a focus.
What do you think? Is there a better way and even if there is will firms move in that direction?
P.S. One additional point needs to be made here: crushing hours at law firms that lead to burn out take place in full view of the clients – after all they receive bills that are denominated in billable hours. So, the clients know this is happening, they are not naive. Some perhaps take a stand, many others probably don’t. As with most things, there is always another side to this story….
It can be helpful at reducing burnout if it is the reliable, easy to use, and reduces mundane tasks. The key is that the technology cannot add an additional burden to the lawyers to learn it, update it, and sometimes struggle with it.
The point being made is valid and one I’ve struggled over the years given the prevailing charging model lawyers adopt. Using technology should reduce the price of the product so the charge to the client should which is partly the point in order to stay competitive but that equates to a reduction in fee rev against target so lawyers need to fill the gap. More often, the fee to the client stays around the same which begs the question, what’s the point other than to give the lawyer more time in the day particularly as many firms make such capital from using the latest tech. The client is only really interested in the tech used if it materially lowers the bills they receive. For lawyers, the fee target is so often a driver as opposed to a margin target which would encourage the adoption of the right tech for the right reason. Someone will break this cycle one day and change the market and it will require a new entrant with no existing hang ups about around the charging mechanism, partner profits and fee targets – a true commodity technology delivered service.