Automate Now. Thank Me (and Avoid the Coming Legal Robot Apocalypse) Later

Ed. note: Hey Everyone! It’s been a while since I’ve posted (sorry!). I just had a piece published in the ABA GPSolo eReport but unfortunately, it’s behind a paywall. Fortunately, the ABA publication guidelines permit me to publish it here for all of you, so here you are. Enjoy!

“Will a robot replace me?” a worried-looking lawyer asked me not long ago. I was pleased to tell them that the risk of the robot lawyer apocalypse is greatly exaggerated. But the fear is real.

According to a new survey by LAWCLERK, although 58 percent agree that technology like artificial intelligence (AI) will never replace the role of a lawyer, another 25 percent believe it’s only a matter of time before this happens and that AI will be the biggest trend in legal in 2019.

The truth is, clients will always want the personal touch or listening ear of a legal professional for complicated or personally involved matters. What’s more, the significant complexity both in the law and the legal system means we’ll need lots of human lawyers for years to come.

Meanwhile, in the broader economy, technology and automation are revolutionizing everything from truck driving to medicine. It’s foolish for lawyers to believe that automation will not have an impact on what they do or how the legal system functions. Legal will not be immune from at least some aspects of the robot apocalypse.

So, what’s a lawyer to do?

The answer—or, at least, the beginning of the answer—lies in tweaking the question. Instead of asking “Will a robot take my job?” try: “How much of what I’m doing now would best be left to robots?”

Framing the question this way does two things: First, it makes the idea of automation in legal services much less threatening. But it also provides some good insight into places that technology has already penetrated the legal sector without a significant impact on what lawyers do.

We’ll look at some examples shortly, but first, it might make sense to ask, “Why automate?”

Let Go, and Let the Robots

The most obvious benefit to automation in legal is cost savings. It’s less expensive to hire a robot to do a repetitive task than it is for an expensive resource like a lawyer to do it, or even than it is to hire a less skilled human to do it. What’s more, robots, technology, and algorithms are designed and built to do that one thing or those few repetitive things (and only those things) and do them well. The cost savings of automation are really about specialization.

Beyond simply cutting costs, technology can act as a force multiplier to allow attorneys to do more work and serve more clients. Finally, technology can even be used to create new and different types of legal products that can grow a legal practice.

I also want to put in a quick plug for automation’s cousin, outsourcing. For those tasks where the robot or technology can’t be found, there may be an opportunity to do something more cheaply through an outsourced resource. Often these outsourced resources have been positioned and trained to perform a limited set of specific tasks. Like the robots, these are specialized resources.

Ultimately, those attorneys who learn to use and effectively integrate automation into their practices today will be best positioned to capitalize on the coming legal robot apocalypse tomorrow.

The next question is “Where to start?” Let’s take a quick tour of a few different areas of legal practice and evaluate how much of what a lawyer might be doing would be better left to the robots.

How Much Marketing Am I Doing Now That Would Best Be Left to Robots?

Marketing provides an excellent example of an area of legal practice that technology has effectively permeated and that also has much room to grow. From a baseline level, not every lawyer or law firm has a website, but many do and certainly most appreciate the need, or at the very least the reason, to have one. Beyond that, a fair number of lawyers use basic social media tools such as Facebook or LinkedIn to at least post about their lives on the former or maintain their virtual résumé on the latter. Twitter adoption remains somewhat lower among practicing attorneys, but there’s a solid and growing group of lawyer Twitter users. The same could be said for Instagram, and even the social news aggregator Reddit has a decent-sized lawyer community.

For the most part, it’s a terrible idea to try to automate or otherwise outsource website content and social media sharing. Web and social media marketing rely heavily on authenticity and individual personality.

However, there are significant opportunities for automation in marketing. One obvious place is customer relationship management (CRM). Depending on the practice, lawyers may face anywhere from a handful to dozens of leads per day. Manually collecting, logging, and tracking that information is time intensive and repetitive. Software for CRM, and for its umbrella category marketing automation, has existed for many years, but the last few years have seen an increase in the CRM software available specifically for lawyers, for example Lexicata and Lawmatics.?

Going further, as lawyers figure out how to create and offer digital legal products and advice— everything from simple estate planning documents, to incorporations, to GDPR compliance and beyond—information collected in the process of offering and even selling these documents can be automatically sent into the CRM.

How Much Practice Management Am I Doing Now That Would Best Be Left to Robots?

Legal practice management is a booming category of legal technology for a reason: Most lawyers understand the need. There’s a lot of value in a system that ties together communication, scheduling, document management, timekeeping, and billing. Practice management is the basic technological platform (the “operating system” as one well-known practice management company calls it) of a law firm. What’s more, the abundance of practice management companies—and the emergence of cloud computing to support those systems—means there’s a long list of inexpensive options to choose from, particularly for an attorney coming to practice management for the first time.

The automation opportunities for practice management are many. Certain scheduling activities within practice management can trigger calendar invites. Responses to e-mail and automated forms can trigger further document automation or additional scheduling. Certain additional actions can assign tasks to other law firm employees—an associate or paralegal. The possibilities are many.

But the real power of automated practice management comes when tied together with other law firm systems. As noted above, automated document creation could be tied into law firm CRM.

That CRM could then be easily tied into practice management. Much of the work of client acquisition, intake, and even legal work in the form of document generation can be completed effectively by “robot.”

How Much Research or Even Lower-Value Legal Work Am I Doing Now That Would Best Be Left to Robots?

Just as with practice management platforms, lawyers now have access to the specialization and advanced computing expertise of sophisticated cloud computing technologies. Whether it’s legal research powered by AI, brief analysis using a helpful bot, or judge analytics, lawyers can now leave to robots much that they did themselves but shouldn’t have—or even things they never could do before.

While lawyers, like the one who asked me the question that began this piece, can be skeptical of all kinds of automation facing the profession, I see some of the greatest fear about the lawyer robot apocalypse around new technologies that seem to encroach on legal work or otherwise threaten lawyers’ monopolies. Lawyers have not always embraced these robots and the associated automation opportunities with open arms.

That said, I’ve also had a front-row seat for the launch and early adoption of LAWCLERK—a platform that helps attorneys connect and leverage other human expertise. It’s true that LAWCLERK offers a service with which lawyers are fairly familiar: finding and hiring a freelance lawyer. But they’re taking a new approach by using a pure marketplace dynamic and making it possible for a hiring attorney to hire any freelance lawyer (LAWCLERK calls them “Law Clerks”) regardless of licensure. The ease and readiness with which lawyers have adopted LAWCLERK gives me hope that while lawyers may fear some of the automation technology brings, their willingness to embrace the specialization available through LAWCLERK may mean that it’s only a matter of time.

Don’t Fear the Robots

The modern lawyer who understands the power of specialization achieved through automation and outsourcing has little to fear from robots. Whether it’s marketing, practice management, or research/legal work, there are lots of ways that lawyers can leverage the power of robots to grow their practices and serve more clients. No, the robots aren’t coming for lawyers’ jobs. But that doesn’t mean that lawyers couldn’t learn a thing or two from them.


©2019. Published in GPSolo eReport June 2019 Volume 8, Number 11 June 2019, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American BarAssociation or the copyright holder