The advent of artificial intelligence has altered many industries, and the law is no exception. From conducting legal research to serving notices for property disputes, AI technology has proven itself capable of completing tasks once reserved for paralegals, junior lawyers, private practitioners, and in-house counsel.
The fact that AI will play a role in the future of law is beyond dispute. Where opinions differ is on how it will affect lawyers — namely junior lawyers.
A bigger picture.
There are those who claim that junior lawyers will have a diminishing role to play in the law firms of tomorrow. After all, many of the tasks on which they would have traditionally cut their teeth are being automated or outsourced to LPOs.
The issue requires perspective: the changes faced by the legal profession are just a microcosm of what’s unfurling at a pan-industrial scale. A recent report released by Australian consultancy firm AlphaBeta suggests that while 86% of the work done by construction and mining labourers will be automatable by 2030, only 15% of the work conducted by the legal profession will face a similar fate. Further data backs this assessment. A forecast released this month by the Law Society of England and Wales suggests that hiring rates within the legal sector will have decreased by 0.6% by 2025 — far from the sweeping job losses predicted by some within the profession.
Interestingly, while junior lawyers are often pointed to as the most at risk, the Law Society’s forecast shows that junior numbers have actually risen over the last few years. This growth has occurred in the aftermath of the employment peak, and reflects the new approaches firms are adopting for junior engagement. The same forecast indicates the legal market will continue to grow over the coming eight years. This suggests a larger buffet of legal work will await those lawyers who remain within the profession.
Does the pond really need to shrink?
It can be easy to equate change with fear. In the eyes of many professionals, a decrease in billable hours for the same output automatically leads to fewer jobs.
Simply culling the number of junior lawyers in response to greater efficiency fundamentally misunderstands the nature of emerging legal technology — and the opportunities it presents. When wielded ably, legaltech can allow firms to pursue “whitespace” and previously unmanageable projects, thereby increasing revenue. It can also accelerate a junior’s meaningful participation within a firm, which, in addition to increasing profit, can also nourish a junior’s sense of job satisfaction.
At McCarthy Finch, our Legal Tech Counsel and Legal Services Manager Jean Yang found herself in a similar situation when she first started her legal career. “During my first year as a junior lawyer, I was asked to check some documents for a hearing,” Jean said. “A large portion of the task was highly repetitive, manual and time-intensive.”
The typical type of work that would keep juniors from business development, client relations, and more complex legal work. “As an experiment, I asked a developer I knew to write code that could automatically complete the repetitive parts of the tasks. I then checked every output myself and found that it picked up things I would have missed. It also turned a five day task into a two day one.”
“At first I felt guilty for improving my efficiency so drastically,” Jean said. However, the extra time she created allowed her to maximise her value to both the firm and the client.
“It liberated me to pursue other tasks. It allowed me more time to assist with the submissions and consider the substantive issues in the case.”
In fact, this sparked the creation of a technology working group for her division “ We worked with the IT team to improve processes and produce more tools like this.”
What Lawyers want.
It isn’t just employers who benefit from changes like these. By working more closely on client needs, junior lawyers can address many of the problems they themselves have identified as hampering their growth.
A recent study published by the Law Foundation of New Zealand has found that junior lawyers generally view the first few years of their career as the period that determines whether they will remain within the law or leave practice. For those who do abandon their legal careers, “Dissatisfaction with the types of work I did” and “Better opportunities to make full use of my skills elsewhere” were cited as the two most common reasons.
By freeing up junior lawyers to focus on the wider needs of the business, law firms will also be better placed to retain promising junior staff.
AI: Better jobs for everyone.
“The fear junior lawyers are expressing over their futures is understandable,” said McCarthyFinch CEO Nick Whitehouse.
“They are seeing new technology applied within the profession, but they aren’t seeing the creation of new roles or ways of being recognised outside of the billable hour. It falls to the firms, and the legal profession as a whole, to lead the charge on this.”
“If you take the worldview that legal jobs only exist in traditional law firms, you have a problem,” said Jean. “However, jobs in legaltech startups, middleware providers, consulting services, and corporates will more than bridge the gap between roles in traditional law firms and those affected by technology.
“It’s also only a matter of time before law firms start to search for the types of graduates who can help them in merging technology and the law. This will put an onus on law schools to train their students in a broader range of skills, and will reward entrepreneurial grads who are tech-savvy and adaptive.”
In addition, technology will make legal advice more accessible, lowering the barriers to practising in markets traditionally considered low value, and result in a need for more lawyers. This has occurred in other industries affected by technology change. A study earlier this year found that while Uber had caused the average income of drivers to decrease by 10%, it had in fact increased the total number of self-employed drivers by upwards of 50%.
“Then there’s the question of meaningful employment: are all the tasks asked of juniors that meaningful?” added Nick.
“There are a huge number of skills required to adapt to the future — judgment, technology competency, decision making, deductive reasoning, critical thinking, problem solving, etc — all of which junior lawyers have in spades,” added Nick.
“These skills won’t only be relevant in law firms, but across business, in-house counsel, and all industries. Juniors will be able to make use of conjoint skills which are currently under-appreciated, and contribute in a way which will benefit both their employers and their career growth.
“AI doesn’t need to mean fewer jobs. It can simply mean more opportunities — for everyone.”