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Law Firm Evolution: More Technology, Less Attorneys

July 22, 2015, 2:40 PM

Editor’s Note: The authors of this post are partners at Zeichner, Ellman & Krause. The opinions expressed in this article are entirely their own, and not those of their firm.

By Daniel B. Garrie, Co-Head of Cyber Security at Zeichner, Ellman & Krause and Executive Managing Partner of Law & Forensics LLC, and Yoav M. Griver, partner at Zeichner, Ellman & Krause.

  • The authors predict that the law firms of 2025 will contain Next Generation Document Review and Advanced Cybersecurity Systems, but will be staffed by far fewer lawyers.

Technology with respect to document reviewing is evolving at a blistering pace.

While companies will continue to generate more information faster than ever before, companies and law firms will be able to deploy systems that more rapidly cull these vast data repositories to identify responsive documents, using methodologies far nimbler, robust, and accurate than the ones being used to review documents today.

The proverbial dawn of a new age around advanced natural language processing, machine learning, and cloud computing will result in the emergence of a new set of technology that will no longer require the virtual enslavement of scores of young associates in document review. The necessity of document review by associates will continue for the next several years, but the economics of litigation will mandate adoption of these emerging technologies and the commensurate reduction of associate-led review.

This is not to say that a silver bullet is likely to emerge that will remove the burden of document review from the necessary attorney skill set. However, it will mean that, as current trends accelerate, technology will increasingly take more of the burden from human review, leading to size and cost efficiencies (i.e., faster, cheaper, and less lawyers involved). This means that a law firm will be able to litigate a case with 20 million-plus documents, without requiring a cadre of document review lawyers.

Likewise, due dilligence today often requires using an army of young associates in a war room reviewing documents to vet a potential deal or merger, and soon such a war room army will not be necessary.

This sea change provides exciting opportunities for both law firms and their clients. Technology will allow mid-size and smaller law firms to more frequently “punch above their weight” in seeking new cases they now have the capacity to handle. In turn, clients will have additional freedom of choice in identifying the right law firm for the task, as firms of all sizes, big and small, will now be able to take on the most challenging and complex cases, assuming they have the right technology and pieces in place to manage the process.

There will be less lawyers involved in document review as the next generation of document review technologies emerge, and it is likely that the senior level attorneys will find themselves more involved in e-discovery or due diligence inquiry. Why? The simple fact is that training computer algorithms to identify the right documents will require the expertise and knowledge of the senior attorneys that best know the detailed facts of the dispute. The net result will likely mean that law firms will shrink, and some will not be as profitable, but arguably there could be a welcome renassiance in the more intellectually challenging aspects of law and trial practice.

The changes already have begun, and will be increasing apparent in the next ten to fifteen twenty years.

The simple fact is that training computer algorithms to identify the right documents will require the expertise and knowledge of the senior attorneys

The successful law firms of the future will also find themselves incorporating some of the most advanced cybersecurity systems and knowledge within their law firm structure. Only a handful of firms today have two or three dedicated cyber security legal professionals on staff, but the successful firms of the future will all have one or two such individuals.

As cyber threats evolve and increase, the nefarious actors behind these threats – governments, criminals, or dedicated activists of many stripes – will increasing target law firms, as they come to realize that law firms are treasure troves of information regarding their clients’ anticipated economic activity.

The reality is that a “Sony-level” hacking incident at a law firm is increaingly likely. Law firms that fail to invest in protecting client data and in shifting their cultural norms to ensure that data security is as second nature as attorney-client privilege, will face the reality that clients will either (1) not retain them or (2) retain them, but force them to use only client-based systems and vendors to do the work. Indeed, the second is already starting to occur, as several global companies now go beyond requiring certified compliance with company cyber guidelines, and mandate what systems and outside service vendors law firms must use.

This tight partnership, however, does not scale or solve a host of other complex conflict issues. Far better if a firm is able to protect client data seamlessly and in accord with preexisting law firm security protocols and technology already incorporated within the law firm structure.

Law firms are already making the first fitful starts at this process – witness the emerging legal ISAC (Information Sharing and Analysis Center), a well intentioned attempt by the legal community to address and coordinate a general response to already present cybersecurity concerns.

This is a commendable start, but until law firms invest in cybersecurity software, and mandate a cultural shift from the most senior partner down, law firms will remain, for the most part, neither technologically nor culturally equipped to handle cybersecurity threats. Those law firms willing and able to demonstrate to their clients that the law firm is secure, and that take seriously the threat to their clients’ private information, are the law firms equipped for future success.

The big firms that rely upon discovery and document review to drive profit, increasingly will be challenged by smaller firms that know how to use technology to make themselves lean, nimble, cost-effective, and secure from cyber attack. At the end of the day, clients will hire law firms that ensure client data is well-protected, and can be reviewed in a timely and cost-effective manner.

Law firms that embrace this future will continue to grow and thrive.