Automation is more a result than a catalyst of innovation efforts in the legal sector.
For industries actively investing in and using automation, the technology provides a variety of overarching organizational benefits, including:
• increased productivity,
• lower operating costs, and
• quicker ROI on normal and novel production.
The downsides, however, are simply the back side of the benefits: With increased robotic productivity comes human unemployment; lower overall operating costs come at an initial high investment cost; and quicker ROI is ideal but bars the very real possibility of mechanical dysfunction.
Despite the controversy surrounding automation, major players across industries are still taking strides toward implementation. Between 2019 and 2021 alone, there’s an expected 14% annual increase in industrial robot jobs.
It’s not just the manufacturing and auto industries that will witness automation’s growth. Just as health care is an unexpected proponent of the tech, the legal industry too is considering how it can also benefit.
Automation, along with AI and blockchain, fit into a cross-industry tech revolution many have dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution—a revolution that’s currently impacting and will continue to impact the legal sector.
What innovative role does automation and similar pieces of tech play in the legal sector? Is it enough for law firms to simply invest to see growth, or does there need to be a cultural overhaul?
How Automation’s Employed in Legal
As in other industries, automation is ideally intended to complement, not replace, workers’ existing responsibilities.
Lawyers and other legal professionals, despite being defined as knowledge workers, still have to complete a lot of tedious but consequential tasks. Tasks like document assembly, review, and continuous learning take up a majority of lawyers’ workdays.
In fact, many only spend about 29% of their time, or 1.6 hours a day, on billable work—and it’s not the result of laziness.
Lawyers aren’t as productive as they want to be in part because of interruptions, [a survey conducted by legaltech firm Clio] notes . More than two-thirds of legal professionals agree there is not enough time in the day, and 28 percent said they struggle to keep track of tasks and deadlines. Also, 25 percent of legal professionals are interrupted more than 10 times a day, according to the survey.“What Do Lawyers Really Do With Their Time?” Brenda Sapino Jeffreys, Law.com
The survey also states that lawyers would prefer to spend more time on billable tasks and business development, but their daily tasks are barring them from doing so.
These working pains, then, make automation an attractive solution, especially for younger, inherently tech-oriented lawyers.
“The millennial generation is both tech savvy and uninhibited by years of practice in the traditional environment,” states Chrissie Wolfe, a solicitor at Irwin Mitchell and founder of legal-oriented YouTube channel Law and Broader. “Technology is an enabler to help us do our jobs better, not do our jobs for us.”
That could mean drafting up documents with no human input, compiling neat reports from vast amounts of multimedia data, or quickly finding similarities between cases from the annals of judicial history.
Any of automation’s potential uses allow legal professionals to spend more time on what they think is valuable to them—as a professional and as a human being in their field.
Implementing Automation: Done in One Fell Swoop, or Continuous Improvement?
The challenges of adopting automation at law firms are the same in other industries: it’s financially prohibitive from the get-go, logistically prohibitive when aligning it with other tech, and professionally prohibitive for primarily administrative positions in the industry.
Perhaps an even greater obstacle, however, is the underlying culture of innovation that exists (or is nonexistent) at law firms and other legal services providers.
Some firms still want to take the leap and invest in the latest innovation tools, but they may overlook the ways in which their foundational operations prevent full utilization.
“People [at law firms] say, ‘Of course we’ll be using technology,’ they’ll say things like, ‘It’s just another tool for us,’” explains author and futurist Richard Susskind. “That’s just thinking in terms of automation; it’s missing the transformation point.”
Transformational innovation efforts, though, have their own set of challenges.
Transformation is a tricky term—it implies change in such a wholesale fashion that the industry can never return to what it once was. It’d be possible to argue that transformation in law hasn’t really occurred since the Magna Carta, and later the U.S. Constitution, which gave rights for due legal process. Despite quality of life and efficiency improvements, the concept of lawyering has largely remained the same: take a case, gather the facts, argue a case, a judge or jury rules.“A Future Focus: The Success of Legal Tech Depends on Transformation, Not Automation,” Zach Warren, Law.com
To put this in other words: The legal industry is on the precipice of an overhaul brought on by technology. Some firms have recognized this by investing in innovative tech like automation. However, that tech will be ineffectual if those same firms don’t invest in ways to engage both employees and consumers first.
Automation is an innovative tool, yes, but organizations can only utilize it as much as their organizational culture—and the culture of the industry as a whole—allows.