Guest post: Technology is increasing, not reducing, opportunities for lawyers

By Mike McGlinchey, head of consulting and technology for Pinsent Masons Vario

In the early 1990s, when I began my career in legal technology, the use of technology was confined to back-office systems. It was primarily used in three areas: finance; marketing and for word processing, and no one referred to it as legal technology. Aside from a single financial lookup terminal on each floor, the lawyers themselves made no direct use of technology.

Life was simpler then.

With continuing debate about the impact of technology on the legal profession and whether technology, i.e. AI, will replace what lawyers do, it is interesting to consider the now widespread use of technology and the positive impact it may have had on the profession.

Of course, AI, as broad a term as that is, has the potential to be much more disruptive than any previous technology. But in a positive way. Undoubtedly access to justice is likely to be a clear winner. The dissemination and access to legal knowledge and automation of processes together with a lower cost of delivery will help democratise legal Know-How. While we might debate the potential for AI to replace legal argument and the extent that automated decisions can be explained and, crucially, accepted there are these still clear benefits.

What then about corporate law?

Let’s consider one of the primary use cases of AI today, due diligence reviews of large numbers of documents. Previously large document review exercises could only be done with the resources of large law firms. Those with significant numbers of, generally junior, lawyers and with the physical space to host the non-virtual data rooms. Smaller firms may have attempted the same exercise by agreeing to review a sample set, an agreed percentage, from which conclusions could be extrapolated. Now, those same smaller firms can, using AI technologies, review a 100% of the documents and so either take on more and increasingly complex mandates or take on new service areas previously not available to them. In either case, those same law firms will likely recruit more lawyers to support this increased activity.

Contract lifecycle management technologies (CLM), much like CRM, have struggled to realise their potential. Now with AI powered CLM systems, lawyers and contracting specialists can have a greater understanding of contract terms and risks. This technology can be used during negotiations on yet to be executed contracts or to analyse all contracts within an organisation. While legal reviews may have been undertaken on high value contracts, many lower value contracts may have had little or no lawyer inspection with knowledge of those contracts quickly lost.

Again, AI is increasing, not reducing opportunities for lawyers in both scope and scale.

Crucially though, AI is assisting lawyers not replacing them. It still requires a legal expertise to determine the context and meaning of each clause to be reviewed. AI might be great at providing the answer, but it still requires a lawyer to ask the right question.

With ever increasing volumes of data and sophisticated tools to uncover more data, legal review and e-disclosure exercises will rely more upon technology. Technology is now a pre-requisite to manage increased demand. That is to assist, not replace, the lawyer.

The adoption of technologies today is often to fix problems of the past. Those AI powered document review exercises today are a consequence of poor use of technology yesterday. Database technology has been around for decades but only now are we looking at structuring and storing contracts more systematically. Process automation and, more importantly, efficient process design through techniques such as Lean Six Sigma will help deliver many benefits that technology alone can’t.

Of course, the skill sets required of lawyers are changing and the move to more junior lawyer support for, or complete automation of, certain tasks becomes more viable. This again creates opportunities for senior lawyers to apply their skills and dedicated their time to a broader range of strategic client issues.

While it is fair to say the advancement in technology use over the past 30 years hasn’t been as transformational as it could have been, the number of practising lawyers hasn’t dropped or even plateaued in that period but risen almost threefold. The rate of growth is slowing, from a heady almost 50% growth in the 1990s to a still respectable 27% in the 2010s*. While there may be other contributing factors to these statistics, dramatic increase in technology use has not diminished the need for legal services.. The next decade may still see a profound shift in legal service delivery but in an increasingly complex world, process optimisation and process automation will continue to enhance, not end, the role of the lawyer.

*Annual Statistics Report 2019 | The Law Society

Mike McGlinchey started in the ‘computing’ department within Pinsent Masons. His background is in technology and has led the client consulting team since its formation in November 2018.

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