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Artificial Intelligence

Why attorneys need to keep up with legal tech advances

Tech gurus love to use the word “disruptive” when talking about digital innovations. But who wants their life disrupted?

New digital technologies should make business and life run more smoothly. They do require businesses to deliver products and services at a faster pace. But they also allow you to operate more efficiently.

That’s certainly been the case in the legal profession.

The practice of law has always relied on precedents and traditions. At the same time, attorneys have a history of adopting new technologies that help them move more quickly and avoid getting bogged down by tedious tasks. Computerized legal research came on the market in the 1970s, and law firms embraced it. When that capability was made accessible to PCs in the early 1980s, the legal tech boom was off and running.

Since the crash of the dot-com boom two decades ago, technology has been focused on practical applications. Digital innovations are rapidly appearing on the market and proving their value and worth more quickly. All the more reason for attorneys to keep pace with tech, as failing to do so means not keeping pace with their competition.

Cost and added value

The need to adopt tech early comes not only because of the general benefits of having the right tech, but because clients expect it. In fact, they’re demanding it. A 2018 Altman Weil survey found that 58% of chief legal officers cite greater cost reduction as their top service wish for the outside counsel they hire.

The implication is clear: Law firms need to provide a high level of service at a lower cost.

Competition is leveraging technology to their advantage. Consider alternative legal service providers (ALSPs). According to the Legal Executive Institute’s 2020 report on the state of the legal market, ALSPs represent a $10.7 billion market in the U.S. and has been posting annual growth of nearly 13%.

One of ALSPs’ biggest selling points versus full-service law firms is their lower cost structure. They’re leveraging technology in order to deliver results quickly, accurately, and with as few employees as possible. And they’re providing services that include document review, investigation support, and regulatory compliance.

To stay competitive, law firms need to offer similar capabilities. Tech isn’t just a cost-saving strategy. It allows firms to focus more on the added value of their expertise. Why should a firm’s legal talent spend valuable time on tedious tasks like marking up court cases and poring through pages and pages of documents for citations when intelligent software can do it more quickly and accurately?

Successful law firms know that up-to-date, best-in-class technology isn’t a nice-to-have option. It is a requirement of doing – and staying – in business.

Let’s take a look at a technology that’s currently making inroads in the legal profession: artificial intelligence (AI).

Getting smarter

These days, when most people hear the term AI, they don’t think of Star Trek’s Data. They think of Amazon’s Alexa. AI is no longer sci-fi. It’s the foundation of numerous useful business tools that are already being put to work in various industries, including legal services. In the past few years, legal software and solutions providers have started to incorporate AI into their products. Take Thomson Reuters’ Westlaw Edge, whose AI-driven capabilities include legal search, litigation analytics, law citation, and statute comparison.

The data that AI-based legal tools gather and process offers firms and their potential clients a deeper understanding of litigation strategy.  In addition, these tools can boost law practices’ business efficiency by managing tasks such as analyzing documents and checking citations.

And one of AI’s most powerful attributes is its ability to “learn.” The more data AI technologies gather, the more accurate their results and actionable insights. These tools are only going to get better, and it’s happening very quickly.

In addition, evidence suggests that AI-enabled legal tools will become a best practice in the profession – and perhaps already have. Late in 2019, Thomson Reuters surveyed more than 200 U.S. law firms regarding AI. Among large firms (those employing 180 or more attorneys), 56% believe AI will become mainstream in the practice of law within the next five years. Among that same survey group, 33% believe that timeline is shorter – either “it’s already here” or that AI will become more widely used “within the next three years.”

Cutting edge, not bleeding edge

Your firm doesn’t need to be the earliest adopter. Every next big thing doesn’t turn out to be useful or durable. Sometimes, that first iteration has bugs that need exterminating. (If you’d been one of the first attorneys with Apple’s visionary but erratic “Newton” device back in 1993, you’d have been stuck with an overpriced and not very useful toy.) You don’t want to buy hype. You want tools that have already been proven useful and have longevity.

Nor is having the best new tech a recipe for a firm’s future success. It’s just another tool in a toolkit, though a necessary one. Pixels can’t replace people. Alexa will never earn a J.D. The practice of law still requires human touch in numerous ways, and always will. True, legal research, practical guidance, and other tech-driven productivity tools can make the practice of law more efficient. But it can’t replace the oversight and context that comes from education and experience when cases go to court.

There’s no denying that tech needs to be an integral part of a law firm’s practice. If you and your firm aren’t looking for ways to leverage the latest legal technology, chances are good you’re falling behind your competition.

AI and other technologies prove it: The future is here. Law firms that want to steer their own future can’t let it pass them by.

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