Why Lawyers Should Love, Not Fear, Legal Workflow Automation
Among some legal professionals, there’s a deep-seated fear of automation. Why? Because they worry it may cost them their jobs. But basing such fears on the example of what’s happened in other industries is a mistake. The fact is, legal workflow automation is already creating legal jobs while improving service levels and job satisfaction.
The looming example of the negative effects of automation on human workforces comes, of course, from manufacturing. While it’s true robotic assembly lines and automated processes supplanted live workers in many manufacturing plants, there are countervailing examples in other industries. Take retailing, where brick-and-mortar store closures were accompanied by huge growth in e-commerce, which resulted in the creation of tens of thousands of jobs. Many of those pay better and offer better benefits and security than the jobs people lost.
"That’s all well and good,” a legal professional might say, “but the law is a different situation altogether.”
That’s very true. It’s also why Legal Operations departments and legal firms will uniquely benefit from legal workflow automation, A.I. and other advances. Those benefits will accrue directly to the people who work there, too.
Removing tasks, not work
As Jake Heller, CEO of A.I.-powered legal research startup Casetext points out in this recent column at Above The Law, it’s important to remember that these technologies will take tasks off a lawyer’s plate. Yet removing those doesn’t mean their job will become superfluous. As he reminds us,
Many people thought ATMs would all but eliminate non-automated (human) bank tellers, but there are twice as many tellers today as there were before ATMs. Technology automated many accounting tasks (imagine the pain of accounting before Excel), but now the Big Four accounting firms make more in revenues and employ more people than the entire Am Law 100 combined. After garment work was automated in the 19th century, the numbers of employed garment workers only climbed. Often, technology creates more jobs in precisely the industries that fret the most about losing them.
Why does this happen? In a competitive marketplace, we don’t deploy automation simply to produce the same service or good more cheaply. We use new tools to deliver new, improved, more attractive products. Better offerings drive more sales and revenue and require more hiring.
In today’s legal business landscape, much the same kind of evolution is taking place.
New demands require advanced solutions
We’ve previously pointed out how more legal firms and Legal Ops groups are looking long and hard at workflow automation and other technologies. What are some of the factors driving them?
- There’s an increasing demand for legal services, especially as firms grow across borders and markets.
- As Jake Heller’s article points out, studies indicate up to 80% of legal needs go unmet, so there’s a crying need for greater efficiency.
- Corporations with Legal Ops departments and law firm clients are demanding greater cost containment.
- Compliance needs mean legal teams need to eliminate errors and bottlenecks creating exposure.
As Jake Heller explains, there’s a compounding effect when technology is added to this mix: as attorneys are able to meet more needs at lower/more predictable cost, existing clients (not just the resource-poor or disenfranchised) will add more transactions and lawsuits to their legal workloads.
“While there are functions of AI that are very well-suited to replacing many of the more defined tasks, legal practice requires advanced cognitive abilities and problem-solving skills in environments of legal and factual uncertainty.”
Removing the mundane improves legal services
By automating repetitive tasks – not just routing or traffic but even entire workflows, like NDAs – lawyers and legal staff are freed from the “pain of the mundane.” So they can devote their time and focus to the intellectual and substantive aspects of practicing the law.
The net-net? An improvement in legal services, combined with an ability to deliver more services on more fronts, with lower cost and smarter efficiency.
In other words, there’ll be more work. And a need for more legal professionals and support personnel.
One powerful instance of this comes from Vodafone Global Enterprise, which revamped its in-house Legal Ops team through an 18-month-long digital transformation project focused on improving efficiency and time savings. The outcome? Vodafone increased its legal staff from 35 in 2014 to 80, 50 of them attorneys, to handle the influx of work made possible by the change.
So lawyers shouldn’t fear the advent of legal workflow automation. Instead, they should seize it as a golden opportunity, much like our own legal industry customers have, to inspire change that’s never been possible before. While opening up new opportunities for employment and fulfillment for legal professionals.