In the folk tale of John Henry, a “steel-driving man” was pitted against a steam-powered hammer in a contest of whether man or machine could bore the most holes through a rocky mountain to make way for a railroad tunnel. Legend has it that John Henry won, only to die with his hammer in his hand as his heart gave out from the effort. The dynamic between man and machine with respect to the law promises to be far less straightforward. Machines, at least presently, aren’t set to make human lawyers superfluous, but they are already greatly transforming the industry, and this trend continues unabated. This shift begs the question, “How can associates stand out in today’s crowded, increasingly automated workplace?”
The “File Tree”
Often, associates can fall into the “File Tree” trap. A partner brings in a steady stream of business or maintains a sufficiently busy book that the associate simply receives one file after another. Over time, he or she is lauded as a good worker, but left out of partner discussions and often sidelined with a long stint as a senior associate. For some, this is a perfectly acceptable outcome as they may be uncomfortable developing business or rely on a slightly less busy schedule to balance family responsibilities. However, when firm fortunes dip, these attorneys are often viewed as expendable.
With automation, associates in the “File Tree” trap are increasingly under pressure. Important, but routine tasks, such as document review, are being outsourced from metropolitan areas where labor is expensive to less costly, far-flung locales and being turned over to machines, which can complete the task faster and at a fraction of the cost. Law360 recently ran a feature on automation and the law and detailed a “John Henryesque” experiment between the software Kira and an associate:
In one test, a law firm took two junior attorneys — one using Kira software and one not — and set them to work searching for assignment clauses across 50 agreements, Waisberg said. The attorney who didn’t use Kira took six hours to find the clauses, while the Kira-enabled attorney took two-and-a-half hours and found some clauses the other had missed, he said.
The piece also cited a paper by Dana Remus of the University of North Carolina Law School and Frank Levy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology titled, “Can Robots Be Lawyers,” which found:
… at large law firms, most of lawyers’ time, about 56 percent, was spent on tasks like advising clients and courtroom appearances that could not easily be automated. About 40 percent of their time was spent on tasks such as due diligence and legal research that could be moderately displaced by automation and only about 4 percent was spent doing tasks that are easily automated, such as document review.
The bottom line is that attorneys who believe that the “File Tree” will bloom forever need to reassess their strategy.
Today’s law firms are buffeted by clients pushing for cost controls, the decline of regional “fortresses” and disruptive do-it-yourself software eating away at lower-cost, higher-volume transactional work. The days of simply adding associates to matters to tackle complexity through manpower, while boosting time billed to the client are, for the most part, over. Clients are more inquisitive and more involved with their legal counsel than ever before. And, there is less hesitancy when it comes to shifting firms, meaning that cost-containment and high-performance are the demanded standard. Coasting on the value of a long-ago established relationship is increasingly perilous. When firms hire associates, they are looking for potential partners that will carry them ever-forward.
One of the key ways associates can differentiate themselves is through technology and marketing. Understanding and taking a lead on firm efforts in the areas of automation software and legal analytics, help create a skill set that provides value and harnesses an inherent generational comfort with technology. The IT department is becoming an ever more valuable part of any organization, and firms need attorneys who understand offerings and actively partner with technology professionals to maximize benefits.
In terms of marketing, while computers may inform strategies, they are not synthesizing and writing client alerts and byline articles. They are not blogging and tweeting. And, they are not routinely presenting to firm leadership the next batch of channels where it would be wise to publish content.
Similar to interacting with the IT department, associates should look to forge relationships with their firm’s marketing and communications professionals. Understanding the effectiveness of one blog post versus another or the performance of a particular social media channel via analytics, are valuable skills that embrace technology and carve out a unique niche.
By becoming active content creators and understanding the underpinnings of marketing properties, associates can help launch the right vehicle to communicate the right content to the right target audience. Without a learned understanding of marketing and technology, such a task is reduced to uninformed guessing or tossed to the marketing and communications teams, whose initiatives oft en struggle to resonate without internal champions.
There are countless stories of firms wrestling with one or both of these problems: (1) a major investment in soft ware aimed at increasing productivity that is collecting dust as no attorneys have bought-in; and (2) a lack of content development and proponents of new broadcast strategies. Computers — even “Watson” itself — can’t fix these issues.
In a hyper-connected super computer world, it is naïve to think that the legal industry will look the same in 2026 as it did in 2006. In fact, it has already morphed considerably just in the last 10 years. But, technology need not be feared. Efficiencies created by computers free attorneys to spend more time on high-level, nuanced legal work and on marketing and communications.
Law firms will likely be leaner in the future, but with each attorney more engaged in business development and strategy. Associates are wise to bear this reality in mind and to look for opportunities to add value. Michael Bond