I’m constantly surprised by talking to people who can see how technology is impacting on every area of business but have a complete blind spot about their own area of expertise. Recently I’ve talked to a number of global law firms who exhibit the same blind spot.

They give me two reasons:

  • They think that their intellectual value add cannot be replaced by machines
  • They are very focused on this year’s business and are really not looking ahead

Role of intelligent automation in law

I’ve just read an excellent report called Future Horizons from the International Legal Technology Association and the authors are very clear about the opportunities and dangers that the legal profession faces in the future. They identify a number of issues:

  • Technology change is getting faster and faster and it is far more disruptive
  • Growing client demand for value, speed, innovation and security
  • Industry pressures from new entrants, intensifying competition and changing structures within the legal industry
  • The impacts of commoditization and automation
  • The challenges from emerging economies.

The law has always been very slow to change, protected by layers of regulation and history and deeply conservative in its thinking. But the luxury of slowness is being very quickly stripped away from law firms by competition and technology.

What should lawyers be doing to ensure survival in the 21st century?

Probably the most difficult first step is to acknowledge that intelligent automation is the future of the legal profession. One senior partner said to me last week “there will always be a need for lawyers”. Well perhaps, but maybe not as we know them now. Maybe clients will not sit in lawyer’s offices any more. Lawyers now need to be able to embrace the need to work from anywhere, on any device, at any time.

Once you have done that then you need to start to look at how intelligent automation can help you do the job better, faster and more competitively. The number of on-line tools is increasing – in fact Googling “on-line tools for lawyers” has 66 million results. They cover a whole range of tools, many of them free. These can automate much of the work currently done by junior staff and do it faster and more accurately.

How do law firms get the benefits of intelligent automation?

As the first industrial revolution showed you only get the benefit of automation when you re-engineer your processes so that work flows can really be streamlined and work allocated to the lowest cost resource – be that in-house lawyer, outsourced partner or intelligent system. As more and more work ceases to be done by lawyers, firms will shrink to a much smaller core of senior, talented individuals who can interface with customers and bring wisdom and experience to difficult problems. I looked at this bigger picture of the role of lawyers in an earlier blog, how much law do lawyers need?

This process leaves law firms with two challenges

  • How do they develop the next generation of senior, talented individuals
  • In a world where the lowest-cost global provider will win most work and prices are continually driven down, how do they grow fee income?

In the world of intelligent automation what new law services will be required?

Innovation will be key here. Take my old friend the driverless car as an example. How will that affect liability? What changes to legislation are likely to occur? Is this an area where a firm could build early expertise by working with manufacturers?

This will mean keeping a close watch on technology change and developing the flexibility and skills to be able to innovate in new markets. Ability to do this will be critical to survival for the law firm of the future.

How do you see law firms adapting to the future – would love to hear your views.