How AI is shaking up legal practice

Displacement of junior lawyers at large firms could be a boon to smaller firms

Kevin Cheung

Small firms and the displacement of legal talent by AI

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the legal industry is expanding. At its most basic level, AI in the legal world is computers learning, reasoning and analyzing information relevant to legal matters. The appeal of AI is that, using machine learning, algorithms and related technologies, the analytical product will become increasingly accurate, efficient and reliable over time. Even now, AI is significantly more efficient at certain tasks than lawyers are. AI is already implemented in document review, legal research, drafting of pleadings, and case analysis.

Smaller firms, by and large, are not and will not be early adopters of AI. They simply do not have the financial means. Yet while the future of legal AI begins with the large firms, its increasing use will also alter the legal landscape for smaller firms. 

AI is disrupting the legal industry

Eventually, if not already, AI will eliminate tasks that junior lawyers at big firms currently do. AI is already replacing non-lawyer jobs such as legal secretaries and assistants. Large firm clients are starting to realize the efficiency, accuracy and cost effectiveness of AI, and will increasingly demand its implementation in appropriate areas of legal work. The result of increasing reliance on AI by larger firms could be dire for junior lawyers and articling students looking to develop legal skills in these firms, and there will inevitably be a pool of talented junior lawyers that cannot obtain or keep jobs at larger firms. The market will benefit from these junior lawyers looking for work.

The effect of AI on small firms 

Junior lawyers and articling students are still going to require a place to develop foundational legal skills. Smaller firms can absorb a percentage of these individuals who might otherwise have worked at larger firms. While a large percentage of small firms do not hire articling students or junior lawyers, now may be a time to reconsider that. By virtue of having a larger talent base to draw from, small firms have an opportunity to become more competent, more talented and more ambitious.

More so than ever, small firms need to take steps to make themselves as attractive as possible for talented lawyers looking for work. Junior lawyers who traditionally would have sought employment from larger firms will demand equally effective legal training from any employer they have.

Smaller firms should strategically develop the legal training they can offer. Consider valuable skills in particular areas offered by your firm, and build a plan for junior lawyers to develop these skills. It cannot be sufficient to simply throw junior lawyers into work that you need done. The work assigned must have a purpose from the legal development perspective.

Consider what skills junior lawyers are learning, and what feedback loops are in place to help them progress. With AI displacing opportunities at large firms, smaller firms will play a larger role in ensuring that the future of the legal profession is as bright as it ever was.

Even if smaller firms cannot fully harness the power of AI right now, the future is still exciting. While adopting AI technology may come at the cost of junior lawyers’ opportunities for legal training in larger firms, it will result in a greater pool of talented lawyers to choose from for smaller firms. AI will not replace lawyers; it will simply shift them into areas they may not have considered before, including small firm services.

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