Thomson Reuters Study: Plenty of Lawyers Still Fear GenAI

A new study of professionals across the world by Thomson Reuters has found that fears over genAI’s impact still persist, with 77% of respondents saying ‘unauthorised practice of law’ was ‘somewhat a threat’ or a ‘major threat’. While 42% saw AI as a notable threat to law firm revenues.

The survey of 1,128 respondents were from across the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia (see below). 29% were in law firms or solos, with 46% of the total sample in the legal sector, whether in a law firm or corporate legal team. Other professions included tax advisers and accountants.

Going back to the legal sector questions, (see table below), it’s clear that despite some in the market sending a message that properly managed genAI will be a net positive for the legal sector, many lawyers still have worries.

TR data, 2024.

For example, only 14% said genAI was ‘no threat at all’ to firm revenue. While only 6% said there was no threat to jobs at all. Instead 59% believed genAI was ‘somewhat’ a threat, or a ‘major’ threat to legal jobs.

However, the focus on the unauthorised practice of law may well be because the largest group of the lawyer sample was in the US.

When it came to actual use, only 14% of the lawyers in the sample – which naturally like all surveys of any kind is only indicative and represents a slice of a far larger population – said they are already using genAI, see table below.

Among the leading US and UK law firms this would likely be a lot higher, but on this global basis, taking into account small and large firms, and inhouse teams of different sizes, then the number makes sense.

Yet, it is still quite a sobering picture that 40% of the legal sample ‘have no plans’ for using genAI in their work.

TR data, 2024

What does this tell us? Primarily, it shows that while plenty of larger law firms and inhouse teams at major companies are charging ahead with genAI projects – based on direct market evidence, as seen in the pages of Artificial Lawyer and elsewhere – when looking at a far wider market of lawyers, then genAI remains far from universal, for now.

This has always been one of the challenges of asking ‘the legal market’ what it thinks about X or Y subject. It is vast and is really not one homogenous group, with many small firms present. Yet, such surveys do allow us to gauge general uptake across the profession more broadly.

The survey then drilled down into what type of genAI tools people are using. Of those in the legal sector who were using the technology already, 27% were using ‘open-source genAI tools (i.e. ChatGPT)’ and by open-source here it seems the survey means LLMs that are directly accessible, as opposed to the 12% who use ‘industry-specific genAI tools’ such as the myriad of legal tech products that leverage genAI, but where you need a licence with that legal tech company for its use.

TR data, 2024

So, although the global sample showed relatively low use levels of genAI, those that did use it were more often using unmodified models such as ChatGPT directly, rather than legal tech tools. Again, this makes sense if you look at a broad sample that includes small firms and small legal teams which will dip into ChatGPT for help on legal needs, in the same way that some lawyers at smaller firms may dip into Google to do some legal research. Of course, whether it’s wise to do that is another question…..!

There is a lot more in the report and AL will come back to other aspects. For now, while it’s clear that although leading firms and legal teams are well into their genAI journey, the data shows that out in the ‘big world’ of lawyers in general the same cannot be said.

Moreover, while some very innovative lawyers are comfortable with AI and have few worries about the legal world’s imminent demise, there are plenty of lawyers out there who still feel very uncertain about what this all means for them, the profession, and their firms.

This suggests that Bar organisations in particular have their work cut out for them to spread the word and help lawyers understand the positives of genAI.

Survey data: The survey was done via an online survey with 1,128 respondents, conducted in January and February 2024. 29% of the total were in law firms or solos, while 46% of all the respondents were in legal sector, (whether law firm or corp legal). The sample was drawn from lists provided by Thomson Reuters, and participants were screened to ensure that they were familiar with GenAI technology. Participants were located in the United States (48% of all respondents), United Kingdom (19%), Canada (16%), Australia (14%), and New Zealand (4%).

Report: 2024, GenAI In Professional Services, accessible via TR website.