The legal industry has seen exponential growth with the increased demand and use of law-centric tech tools. While many traditional firms have been slow to adapt, the COVID-19 pandemic has expedited the implementation and use of virtual solutions by firms that would have otherwise delayed or resisted. Like many industries in 2020, the legal field has seen unprecedented unemployment rates, with new law school graduates and support staff disproportionately affected. While this precedented time in history certainly has its challenges, the rush toward tech has created unique job opportunities for lawyers and firms ready to embrace the legal industry’s future.
Legal Tech Is Shaping the Industry
The legal system is firmly grounded in a long history of tradition, procedure, and structure. As a market of continuous change and revision, the tech industry is a stark contrast. While the core tenets of the legal practice should be embraced and preserved, legal tech will revolutionize many firms' daily operations. It is up to attorneys to learn the ins and outs of these new tools in order to stay afloat in an ever-increasing digital world.
From case management tools to online legal research, technological tools have assisted lawyers for decades. However, the industry has seen exponential investment in tech over the past few years, with more firms looking for ways to lower supportive staffing costs while increasing their ability to focus on more nuanced legal work.
The COVID-19 pandemic has sent legal tech into overdrive, with firms having to make do with less staff as well as remote working arrangements. From Zoom-based legal proceedings to task management and timing software, these digital tools are becoming the bread and butter of a successful firm. While the implementation of remote tools has been necessary this past year, the shift to mobility in the legal profession is hardly new. Lawyers have been moving toward flexible workspaces and shared office spaces over the last decade. The last year has shown that many clients and attorneys both prefer the convenience of meeting online and a brick and mortar location may not be a necessity. In fact, a recent study performed by the New York State Bar Association showed that the use of telecommuting had no negative impact on the attorney-client relationship. All clients expressed that they had a high level of trust in their attorney despite not meeting face to face.
The more recent implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) has advanced these digital tools to the next level, allowing both attorneys and paralegals to delegate simple tasks to technology so they can focus on more pressing or complex legal matters. According to Altman Weil’s 2019 Law Firms in Transition survey, “About half of the survey respondents (48 percent) reported using technology tools to replace human resources to increase the efficiency of legal service delivery.” After almost a year of using technology-based solutions, many attorneys realize they are more efficient than ever and seek to integrate more digital applications into their daily operations.
Investment in Legal Tech Is Skyrocketing
The legal tech industry is quickly becoming one of the fastest tech sectors in the nation. In 2018, investments broke the $1 billion mark, which was only topped the following year with more than $1.23 billion in funding toward legal tech startups and incubators in 2019. While deal-making has slowed through the crisis, legal companies continue to accelerate their adaption of technology. As more firms become more comfortable using these tools, growth in the legal tech field will continue — long after COVID-19.
AI-based offerings for law firms have increased by two-thirds in 2020, as companies embrace the time and legal cost savings AI provides. For example, JP Morgan launched its own in-house AI program, COIN, which completed the equivalent of 360,000 hours of legal work in seconds.
A Shrinking Job Market Is an Opportunity in Disguise
This past year has been devastating to many job markets, and the legal industry is no exception. In July of this year, the legal services industry had 41,800 fewer jobs than in June of 2019. New law school graduates have been hit especially hard. According to an ABA Journal survey, more than 49 percent of law grads have had employment offers rescinded. In that same survey, they found that more than half of law offices that have hired 2020 law graduates have not yet provided a start date. For those who have received start dates, more than 62 percent are scheduled to start in January 2021. Young lawyers find themselves in one of the most uncertain economies our country has ever seen, but the future isn’t necessarily doom and gloom.
While law graduates lack the requisite experience that would make them a competitive associate candidate in a sparse job market, they possess the legal domain expertise necessary for any legal tech application. This could make them an attractive choice for tech companies looking to break into the legal tech industry.
Digital adoption isn’t just a matter of convenience anymore for law firms; it is necessary for survival. Experienced lawyers will need assistance to adapt to the fast-paced changes occurring in the legal industry. According to a Wolters Kluwer survey, more than half of existing lawyers expect to see significant changes in their firm’s use of technology and fewer than one quarter say they understand them. They reported that their lack of knowledge and skill are the top reasons for resisting technology. New law graduates can position themselves as ambassadors for legal tech, assisting traditional firms in the transition toward optimal efficiency.
Legal Tech Bridges the Legal Skills Gap
Adoption of technology in the legal field has become ever more critical. The old stereotype of an attorney hunched over a pile of books, hoping to find a needle in a haystack has gone by the wayside. Instead, attorneys rely on AI to handle the grunt work while they concentrate on client relations, legal strategy, and advising clients. For example, Kira Systems’ AI-integrated software can scan hundreds of documents within seconds, pointing out potential issues, mistakes, or contradictions, saving lawyers from spending hours on performing tedious document review. Legal tech has the unique ability to allow both fledgling attorneys and experienced ones the ability to jump in and participate meaningfully within their cases.
Law schools are slowly realizing the benefits legal tech provides and the necessity of becoming familiar with their use. The University of Glasgow has created a practical legal technology course that includes instruction on how to apply AI to legal cases. Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law has also added tech components into their curriculum, with a TEacH Law hub that provides assistance in integrating tools within the legal teaching experience. It is only a matter of time before more law schools follow suit.
IT Collaboration Is Necessary for Survival and Success
With a sometimes persistent perception that experienced lawyers are tech-averse, IT professionals and developers have been wary of entering the legal market. However, as attorneys use technological tools to simplify aspects of their personal lives, they will expect the same efficiency within their firm. Clients will also expect the ease and convenience of tech tools when interacting with a firm. For example, compared to traditional methods, clients prefer online booking, digital forms, and the ability to send financial information online securely. It saves them time, hassle, and money. Firms that cannot conform to the needs of clients will not survive.
Firms need to consider a synergistic approach between their attorneys and IT professionals. Firstly, a thorough analysis of daily operations, communication, and challenges needs to occur. Once roadblocks have been identified, firms can work with IT professionals to implement technology-based solutions. Continual communication between lawyers and those in the tech industry ensures that future tools will continue to benefit both attorneys and clients.
One of the most exciting characteristics of technology is the exponential potential for continuous innovation. The injection of AI into legal tech provides new creative ways for firms to apportion their time and resources. AI-powered tech tools afford lawyers the leverage to trade rote legal review or analysis for more enjoyable aspects of law practice. From a changing legal education centered around the use of technology to establish firms rethinking their digital strategy, there is no doubt that legal tech is quickly shaping the landscape of the legal field.