Washington Lawyer - December 2017 - 33
Hurst also says these technological advances have
altered the traditional role of the junior associate
within a law firm setting: associates are now forced
to become "lawyers" sooner than they were
required to be just a few years ago.
"When I began practicing 20 years ago, new
associates in big firms could expect to do chiefly
document review and discovery work for a
number of years. They were not expected to
advise on strategy, deal with clients, or generate
business. They would glean those skills over the
years and gradually adopt a broader role in the
context of client representation," Hurst says.
"These days, associates are expected to learn
those skills much sooner in their careers, and they
are given more responsibility than they were
previously. Instead of just reviewing documents
according to a format they were handed, they
are now expected to create that format, to come
up with discovery strategy, and to give strategic
advice. They are tasked with managing teams early
and they handle small and simpler matters on
their own, with minimal supervision."
Swisher, the Association of Legal Administrators
president, agrees with Hurst's assessment and says
he also has witnessed changes in the professional
paths of junior associates. "In some cases, these
advances in technology are opening the door to
other types of legal careers for associates. Some
are moving to outsourced legal services organizations, pursuing other roles within the firm (finance,
operations, technology, training), or developing
specialized skills to improve the firm's relationships
with clients," Swisher says. "But as noted previously, some of these changes are resulting in fewer
junior associates being hired, or if already on staff,
being let go."
This changing legal landscape also extends to
support staff within law firms. Technology such
as e-billing and e-filing are two of a multitude of
tools impacting the traditional roles of legal assistants, paralegals, and legal secretaries.
Jeanette Derby, founder and CEO of Legal E
Employment Partners, has spent more than 30
years helping law firms meet their staffing
support needs while observing the expansion of
technology in the legal industry.
"Technology has absolutely impacted the approach
to legal staffing throughout all law office positions,
as well as the way attorneys process their work," she
says. "The whole point of technology is to make
things more efficient, and that is exactly what it has
done. It has drastically reduced the need for large
numbers of legal support staff."
Derby says she has seen a significant decrease in
law firm hiring across the board, from legal
"I think in many
already does replace
lawyers. Not entirely,
of course, but it
the number of
Tanenholz & Associates PLLC
secretaries to e-discovery reviewers. "In the 1980s, it
was standard practice for law firms to employ one
secretary for each attorney. Now, there is an average
of four attorneys to every one secretary."
Derby adds that to successfully secure a support
staff position these days, candidates must have
excellent technical skills beyond advanced Word.
"Firms are looking for more technical aptitude
instead of specific software skills. Because they are
focusing on aptitude, firms are more willing than
ever to hire junior candidates without legal experience, provided they can demonstrate technical
aptitude, as well as an eagerness to learn and evolve
in an administrative support role," Derby says.
A PLACE FOR AI
Foley's Hurst says that the technological advances
he sees taking place are daunting, but exciting.
"I think technology will certainly continue to replace
some of the things lawyers have historically done,"
he says. "There are some things that lawyers do that
are rote, that consist of knowing the right form or
material that is necessary, and mechanically preparing and submitting them. This is a not an insignificant part of the American legal practice, and as
technology continues to make these tasks simple
for the population to do themselves, there will be
less demand for lawyers overall."
Hurst adds that despite an increase in the use of
AI, there will always be areas of the law that require
a personal touch. "For firms like Foley that handle
complex tasks requiring creativity and careful
analysis, the impact [of technology] will be less than
in other sectors of the law firm business. And in
areas where persuading people is important - in
court, in the boardroom, at the negotiating table
- it will be hard to replicate the power of persuasion and argument with artificial intelligence technology. A verdict, a deal, a decision do not have a
'correct' answer that a machine can come up with.
At the end of the day, it is still people who are
making these decisions based on things much
more complex than algorithms," he says.
Hurst believes that job satisfaction also will be
affected by technological advances. He says that
AI allows lawyers to focus on the tasks they prefer
to perform, which makes them more content and
fulfilled in their professional lives.
Swisher agrees that, even with AI, technology is
unlikely to ever fully replace the valuable services
attorneys provide to their clients. "I don't think that
technology will fully replace lawyers, but cognitive
computing, AI, and robotics are already having
impacts on how legal services are delivered," he
says. "The pace of development of these technologies is increasing rapidly. As it evolves, it is expected
that by 2020 such technologies will tackle complex
due diligence legal work. And by 2030 these
technologies are expected to be able to think
for themselves, without the aid of lawyers and
Tanenholz believes the technology takeover is
underway. "I think in many ways technology already
does replace lawyers. Not entirely, of course, but it
certainly reduces the number of attorney hours
billed," he says. "As technology improves, I see this
trend accelerating, with billable attorney hours continuing to decrease as a percentage of legal
spending ... My sense is that there will always be
some role for attorneys in the document review
process. At some point, after the raw data is processed, culled, and vetted by the machines, actual
humans with legal training will need to perform their
own analysis and build their case on behalf
of their clients.
"When it comes to technology, I'm reluctant to
predict any limitations as to how far it will eventually go," says Tanenholz, jokingly adding that a few
years ago, he believed human drivers would always
be necessary on the roadways - a theory that has
been disproved by the increasing number of driverless cars.
Swisher sums up the future of lawyers in the age
of artificial intelligence with two succinct thoughts:
"Delivering legal services goes beyond searching,
processing, and analyzing. Human lawyers have the
capacity for creativity and emotional intelligence
that will remain critical to the practice of law."
Erika Winston is a regular contributor to
DECEMBER 2017 33