The law firm of the future is already here. We just don’t recognize it.
What does the law firm of the future look like? To answer this question, we must first decide what future we are talking about. The near future?
Or perhaps the science-fiction future—the one more likely to be entertaining than accurate. After all, we still don’t have hoverboards from Back to the Future’s version of 2015 or Soylent Green’s (spoiler alert) human food of 2022.
Let’s focus on the foreseeable future—the one being shaped by forces we can see today.
Here are three critical ways the law firm of the future will be different.
Working With AI
We don’t need a crystal ball to see that AI is already transforming the practice of law. The emergence of generative AI points the way to a future where AI is embedded at every level of an attorney’s work. Study after study shows that lawyers are uniquely exposed to the capabilities of AI, given that nearly everything they do involves the input and output of information.
The law firm of the future will experience this AI transformation at two levels.
First, AI will augment the work that individual attorneys do, becoming woven into the fabric of daily tasks. We only need to look several months into the future to see this coming, for example, in the integration of AI as a copilot across common productivity platforms, such as for word processing, timekeeping, and communication platforms.
Second, AI will transform the delivery of legal services at the practice level. Practices that conduct similar kinds of legal work repeatedly will be transformed by AI automation and augmentation at scale.
From devising legal strategies to reviewing evidence and drafting briefs, the inefficient and redundant aspects of white-collar labor at the core of these tasks will be radically optimized through AI, enabling attorneys to focus on the work only they can do. This will create opportunities to scale—increase revenue at a faster rate than cost—that didn’t exist before.
Evaluation and Education
AI will transform the skills that clients not only value but expect from their legal counsel. In a future where highly-refined and factually-correct prose can be instantly generated with an AI prompt, will the value of research and writing ability change compared with other critical skills such as complex problem solving and strategic thinking?
Of course, AI will also refine how lawyers are trained throughout the course of their careers. If AI allows firms to review and summarize thousands of documents in hours instead of days, what opportunity does that present to better and more efficiently meet clients’ needs? And how will this impact the way that lawyers increase their legal ability and hone their analysis skills? This new reality calls on us to be better mentors and teachers.
The successful attorney in the law firm of the future will intuitively access and leverage the firm’s data to get their work done. They will incorporate AI at almost every step of the process by which they determine what the client needs and how to produce that for them. AI will be central to how they consume information, being used by both attorney and client to summarize and expand critical ideas.
To continue to succeed in this environment, law firms must responsibly augment and extend the capabilities of their lawyers through enabling technology.
Law firms owned by lawyers may maintain a monopoly on legal services well into the future, at least in the US. After all, multiple efforts to reform Rule 5.4 of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct—the strongest bulwark against ownership of law firms by non-lawyers in the US—have largely failed, with Arizona and Utah providing notable exceptions.
However, those exceptions, and similar efforts to undo this prohibition (which have been successful outside the US, e.g., in Australia and the UK), point to powerful forces that are unlikely to abate soon.
Law firms—with their limited ability to raise outside money, make significant long-term capital investments, grow with capital instead of revenue, and compensate non-attorneys with equity—have some significant disadvantages for investing in technology compared with putative future competitors such as global professional services organizations or software companies.
What would a law firm financed like public companies look like? A law firm with the ability to spend billions on growth for years? One with the ability to create novel business structures and incentive programs and to access virtually unlimited spending on technology?
As law firms exist today, this is an unlikely future—even if the traditional walls were toppled. Like most service providers, law firms simply don’t have growth curves or valuation multiples that are attractive to equity investors.
But what happens if law firms unlock efficiencies with the support of products such as AI that were previously unavailable to them? When they are AI- and technology-augmented so that a service can be delivered at scale with high leverage—meaning a single attorney does the work of dozens, or a legal practice scales infinitely to service every possible client on the planet without fundamentally changing its labor or overhead costs?
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Barclay T. Blair is senior managing director of DLA Piper’s AI Innovation Team where he advises both the firm and its clients on the applications of artificial intelligence while driving the innovative use of emerging technologies.
Bennett B. Borden is chief data scientist and partner at DLA Piper where he leads a team of data scientist/lawyers, data scientists, analysts, and coders to advise clients on the fair, ethical, and safe use of AI and helps them design, implement, and monitor AI systems.
Danny Tobey is chair of DLA Piper’s AI & data analytics practice where he helps companies adopt AI in a safe and compliant manner and works with some of the most prominent companies in the world on AI governance.
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