‘Why AI will eat the law’ ran the headline in The Lawyer recently. The story was sparked after Meng Weng Wong, co-founder of open source tech company Legalese.com, said that law firms are falling behind when it comes to technology, particularly artificial intelligence (AI). Speaking at AI conference CogX, he said: “In most law firms the most advanced technology they have is track changes.” Damning indeed.

Wong made the distinction between the legal profession and the legal industry – the latter being a law firm that uses AI to provide legal services, and has thousands of clients but no lawyers. He could see a growing division between the two.

The threat of technology to the traditional law professional looms large. In March last year, a Deloitte study claimed that technology has already contributed to the loss of around 31,000 jobs in the legal sector, and predicted that another 39% jobs are at risk in the next 20 years. However, there has been an overall increase of approximately 80,000 new jobs in the sector, most of which are higher skilled.

The problem is not therefore one of a reduction in the number of employees needed but perhaps one of skill sets. The challenge for law firms is readily finding the talent they need to drive a technology-led strategy forwards.

“Our report shows that firms have already identified a mismatch between the skills that are being developed through education and those currently required in the workplace. Employers will need to look for lawyers who are not just technically competent, but who have a broader skill set,” said Peter Saunders, lead partner for professional practices at Deloitte.

Mishcon de Reya’s chief strategy officer Nick West, speaking at CogX, added that firms must wield some influence over law schools so that students learn the skills needed for a world powered by AI. 

Business skills at the ready

 

But it surely also opens up opportunities for business services professionals both within and beyond the legal sector who have the requisite technology skills to take on key senior roles in law firms. Those with hybrid skill sets – with knowledge of both technology and of law – will be particularly in demand.

The expertise needed may also increasingly combine different disciplines. For example, at Totum we’re now seeing a rise in blended business services roles that combine traditionally quite siloed skills in marketing, HR, IT and finance to deliver firm-wide benefits in areas including communication and digital marketing (see our recent article on the integration of business services). In the context of AI, this could mean a rise in roles that link cutting-edge technology into more traditional functions like knowledge management – reflecting the fact that AI will only ever be as good as the experts managing the information that powers it. In this respect, roles such as data analysts and data scientists will also increasingly come to the fore in the legal sector.

Over in the US, in 2015, employment specialists Littler Mendelson hired Dr. Zev Eigen, an expert in data science, econometrics, social science methodologies, statistics and law, as its Global Director of Data Analytics. He leads the firm’s Big Data Initiative, which aims to use data to help clients make employment decisions and reduce the risk of legal disputes.

Law firms need not be devoured by AI technology, as predicted by Meng Weng Wong, but use it as a great enabler. To reap the potential will require, however, a thorough review of the skills needed for the road ahead.

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