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INSIGHT: The Future of Junior Lawyers Through the AI Looking Glass

Aug. 3, 2020, 8:00 AM

It’s no secret that the legal field is a competitive environment. Junior lawyers are undeterred by (and perhaps even attracted to) the cutthroat nature of the business, and one-upping the competitor is necessary to get a job in the legal field.

In fact, it’s part of the job itself. Firms turn to the latest and greatest tech development to compete with each other and “keep up with the [legal] Joneses.” In 2019 alone, investments in B2B legal tech soared past $1 billion.

Still, some legal professionals fear that cutting-edge technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI), will eliminate the role of junior lawyers in the future. It’s clear to many, however, that law firms must incorporate new legal tech developments in order to attract top talent, remain a top competitor, and mold their junior lawyers to be better than the next.

I’d argue that the addition of AI in law firms of tomorrow won’t mean fewer jobs, but actually more opportunities—for everyone.

Growth of the Legal Industry

The legal industry isn’t slowing down. Between 2010-2019, the American Bar Association recorded a 12.4% increase in the number of practicing U.S. lawyers and consistent growth of law students over the past few years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the legal sector is only expected to rise, with a projected 6% growth in employment of lawyers between 2018 and 2028.

With today’s “new normal” guided by shifting priorities in the Covid-19 era, lawyers are busier now than ever before (just in different ways). The pandemic has impacted the global economy, our health-care systems, insurance claims, employment, remote work capabilities and more—all areas that require sound legal counsel.

Simply put, lawyers are hungry for opportunities, and law firms simply aren’t eliminating the role of a junior associate. Instead, the addition of legal tech will help streamline lawyers’ daily workflow and responsibilities to make their professional advice more accessible.

The Third Competitor: AI

There’s no doubt that AI is disrupting every industry—legal is no exception. McKinsey & Company estimates that 23% of a lawyer’s work can be completed by automated technology. These technologies have proven themselves capable of completing arduous and time-consuming tasks once reserved for paralegals and junior associates.

From conducting basic legal contract reviews to serving notices for property disputes, tools such as automated contract review and legal document management software streamline the time-consuming “busy work” that senior lawyers traditionally ask junior lawyers to tackle first.

The 2020 Report of the State of the Legal Market released by Georgetown Law and Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute examined what type of legal technology firms believe they should be using. Over half of legal professionals believe that their organization should adopt document automation solutions (52%), with document drafting solutions (45%) and know-how and precedent solutions (43%) being the second and third most-sought-after solutions.

Yet AI cannot complete every job. The human brain is wired to connect concepts and come up with solutions to complicated problems that meet business objectives and mitigate risk. A computer, no matter how intelligent, isn’t programmed to process and connect concepts on its own. When it comes to reviewing contracts, AI can certainly pinpoint irregularities and provide feedback, however, it’s not yet capable of conceptually determining an end solution for complex issues without human assistance.

Instead, technology removes the laborious, time-consuming tasks of bottom-level, admin-heavy work and allows junior lawyers to re-allocate their time to focus on the bigger picture results, and drive more critical thinking and analysis.

Increasing Productivity, Reducing Billable Hours

For junior lawyers, AI is granting more opportunities than threats.

A recent study by McCarthyFinch, which focused on the benefits of AI technology for lawyers, found that new users were 51.5% more productive than when working manually; that productivity increased the more proficient they became with the contract management tool.

The role of junior lawyers isn’t going anywhere; everyone has to start somewhere. The entry level positions are crucial to professional growth and development. Rather than technology removing the role of a junior lawyer entirely, the combination of the two is allowing associates the ability to learn and develop their skills faster than their senior predecessors.

In turn, firms will be able to enhance their capabilities staff-wide by expediting client work, reducing billable hours, and supporting staff retention better than ever before.

It’s only a matter of time before law firms start to search for the types of graduates who can help them merge technology and the law. This will put a responsibility on law schools to train their students in a broader range of skills and will reward entrepreneurial grads who are tech-savvy and adaptive.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Nick Whitehouse is the CEO and co-founder of McCarthyFinch, an AI contract management service. Prior to McCarthyFinch, he was the chief digital officer at MinterEllisonRuddWatts, leading its digital strategy to see it become recognized as the most innovative law firm in New Zealand. He’s the winner of multiple digital leadership awards, including Global & APAC Winner Most Disruptive Leader, Winner Emerging ICT Leader NZ, and IDC Australasian DX Leader of the Year.

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