Legal Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the Practice of Law in 2018

Due in part to a better understanding of available artificial intelligence legal tech tools, more lawyers will adopt and use AI technologies in 2018 than ever before. Better awareness will also drive creation and marketing of specialized legal practice areas within law firms focused on AI, more lawyers with AI expertise, new business opportunities across multiple practice groups, and the possibly of another round of Associate salary increases as the demand for AI talent both in-house and at law firms escalates in response to the continued expansion of AI in key industries.

The legal services industry is poised to adopt AI technologies at the highest level seen to date. But that doesn’t mean lawyers are currently unfamiliar with AI. In fact, AI technologies are widely used by legal practitioners, such as tech that power case law searches (websites services in which a user’s natural language search query is processed by a machine learning algorithm, and displays a ranked and sorted list of relevant cases), and that are used in electronic discovery of documents (predictive analytics software that finds and tags relevant electronic documents for production during a lawsuit based on a taxonomy of keywords and phrases agreed upon by the parties).

Newer AI-based software solutions, however, from companies like Kira and Ross, among dozens of others now available, may improve the legal services industry’s understanding of AI. These solutions offer increased efficiency, improved client service, and reduced operating costs. Efficiency, measured in terms of the time it takes to respond to client questions and the amount of billable hours expended, can translate into reduced operating costs for in-house counsel, law firm lawyers, judges, and their staffs, which is sure to get attention. AI-powered contract review software, for example, can take an agreement provided by opposing counsel and nearly instantaneously spot problems, a process that used to take an Associate or Partner a half-hour or more to accomplish, depending on the contract’s complexity. In-house counsel are wary of paying biglaw hourly rates for such mundane review work, so software that can perform some of the work seems like a perfect solution. The law firms and their lawyers that become comfortable using the latest AI-powered legal tech will be able to boast of being cutting edge and client-focused.

Lawyers and law firms with AI expertise are beginning to market AI capabilities on their websites to retain existing clients and capture new business, and this should increase in 2018. Firms are focusing efforts on industry segments most active in AI, such as tech, financial services (banks and financial technology companies or “fintech”), computer infrastructure (cloud services and chip makers), and other peripheral sectors, like those that make computer vision sensors and other devices for autonomous vehicles, robots, and consumer products, to name a few. Those same law firms are also looking at opportunities within the ever-expanding software as a service industry, which provides solutions for leveraging information from a company’s own data, such as human resources data, process data, quality assurance data, etc. Law practitioners who understand how these industries are using AI technologies, and AI’s limitations and potential biases, will have an edge when it comes to business development in the above-mentioned industry segments.

The impacts of AI on the legal industry in 2018 may also be reflected in law firm headcounts and salaries. Some reports suggest that the spread of AI legal tech could lead to a decrease in lawyer ranks, though most agree this will happen slowly and over several years.

At the same time, however, the increased attention directed at AI technologies by law firm lawyers and in-house counsel in 2018 may put pressure on law firms to adjust upward Associate salaries, like many did during the dot-com era when demand for new and mid-level lawyers equipped to handle cash-infused Silicon Valley startups’ IPO, intellectual property, and contract issues skyrocketed. A possible Associate salary spike in 2018 may also be a consequence of, and fueled by, huge salaries reportedly being paid in the tech sector, where big tech companies spent billions in 2016 and 2017 acquiring AI start-ups to add talent to their rosters. A recent report suggests annual salary and other incentives in the range of $350,000 to $500,000 being paid for newly-minted PhDs and to those with just a few years of AI experience. At those levels, recent college graduates contemplating law school and a future in the legal profession might opt instead to head to graduate school for a Masters or PhD in an AI field.

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