Is AI a differentiator, or just another buzzword?

Tuesday 9 May, 2023

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Is AI a differentiator, or just another buzzword?  Practice Managers share their take on the technology.

What’s the real state of play with AI in the legal sector? We’d argue that no-one has better insight into this area than Practice Managers. As the bridge between partners, staff and clients, they’re at the front line of the sector’s technology-led transformation – and have first-hand insight into the attitudes, perceptions and practical challenges that surround AI implementation in law firms.

To get their inside view on the issue of AI, Insight Legal brought together a group of Practice Managers from a cross-section of different legal firms. It was the first in a series of discussions that will be putting Practice Managers centre-stage, as we listen to their opinions on the topics that are shaping the future of our industry.

During the discussion, which took place at Searcy’s, St Mary Axe, Practice Managers discussed their experiences of AI, along with their concerns over some of the changes it could bring and their projections of what the future holds for AI in legal tech.

A sector divided on AI

For all of the excitement and interest around AI in legal circles, there are also some serious reservations, with many questioning the practicalities (and the ethics) of implementing AI in today’s legal landscape.

While some Practice Managers are already actively introducing AI bots to manage aspects of administration – and saving valuable billable time as result – others are only just starting to tentatively discuss the possibilities.

Could AI be about to become a key differentiator in how legal firms operate – and how they generate profit? Or do critical differences between firms and their clientele mean that AI won’t reach widespread uptake in the sector until long into the future?

Key talking points from the event: from ethics to efficiency:

Is AI going to take people’s jobs?

This has been a hot topic across all sectors since AI started to emerge. Interestingly, a Practice Manager from one firm that has already implemented AI confidently stated that, in their experience, this hasn’t been the case.

“We’ve introduced five bots in the firm, and they haven’t replaced any jobs. What they have done is increased our capacity to take on additional fee-earning work. Despite initial concerns, our teams have come to accept and appreciate the positive impact of AI.”

Yet will this continue to be the case as AI evolves? One partner likened the tasks that will be carried out by AI to Legal Secretaries previously needing to type all correspondence and contracts for their firm. “When this task was removed, was that employee’s time moved, absorbed elsewhere or simply lost?”

As more tasks become automated, many are concerned that it could reduce the need for staff – and while that’s good for efficiency, it doesn’t generate warm feelings towards AI and could cause some resistance amongst employees as AI solutions are rolled out.

Does AI risk disrupting human connections?

For some of the firms present, human connection is seen as vital to clients who are perhaps in a difficult personal situation and looking for the comfort of conversation. While AI won’t necessarily impede on these relationships while it is limited to administrative tasks, there is the fear that it could eventually start to encroach on these connections – with some questioning whether AI can remove much-needed empathy from the process.

Attendees made comparisons between automations in the legal process and the over-reliance of technology in society: for example, the impact of self-checkouts in supermarkets on older generations and vulnerable people.

“If you don’t use technology today, you step off the face of the planet. It’s a sad world when older people can’t manage their own affairs due to lack of digital literacy, or risk not having any human contact because of automations.” In the legal sector, the question was raised whether AI could spark a generational divide, affecting employees and, in some instances, clients.

The legal system as a whole isn’t ready for AI, even if firms are.

While some organisations have digital processes that allow AI functions to submit information, such as HMRC, others – including the Courts – rely on dated analogue practices that just aren’t compatible. Natural Language Processing also continues to be an issue, with some digital portals struggling to understand certain dialects or languages.

Yet do legal firms need to wait patiently for these systems to modernise, or is it up to the sector to start applying pressure? “We’re waiting for big companies to change the industry, but it’s up to us,” commented one Practice Manager.We need to start banging on doors to drive change, or risk finding ourselves at a serious disadvantage.”

You need to know your client before you implement AI.

If people are expecting a bespoke service, AI might not be the solution, according to one firm who had met resistance from high-net-worth clients over automating even the smallest of tasks. However, if AI is being used to automate tasks that can only be seen by internal teams, can it really make a difference?

Paul Hobden, Director of Operations at Insight Legal, also raised the point that AI differs wildly from automation, and that it’s important not to confuse the two. “While we’ve all experienced frustrations with automation, AI is a different kettle of fish. AI’s ability to creatively respond means that you often won’t even know you are interacting with an AI.”

The jury is still out on whether AI can ever have a place in client-facing activity, or whether it needs to remain a purely administrative function well into the future.

“The biggest stumbling block to AI in law firms? Acceptance.”

Acceptance continues to be an obstacle to AI – and indeed other technologies. Reasons for resistance ranged from fear of losing control at a Partner level, to entrenched habits across every part of the firm, and attitudes in the legal system as a whole.

Practice Managers questioned whether the legal profession will ever let go of its “comfort blankets” – with a reliance on wet signatures, physical copies and literal paper trails having no real reason other than personal preference and a desire to continue with familiar habits.

“The old way was the new way once.”

As one Practice Manager said, change is inevitable, and it’s how people perceive that change that will differentiate those firms that thrive in an increasingly digital future, and those that lag behind the curve.

In short, everyone around the table agreed that the legal sector can’t stop the relentless march of change. Those firms that ultimately embrace AI – in whatever capacity suits their values, their desired business model and their clientele – will have a competitive advantage over those that fully resist change.

Practice Managers, join the conversation with Insight Legal

As a Practice Manager, you play a critical role in your firms’ adoption of technology. AI might be the buzzword of the moment, but even if you’re not ready to adopt it you can start looking at how you can prepare, increase efficiency and get your operations ready for digital future. We’re keen to listen to Practice Managers’ views on the future of legal tech, and hear about your plans for the future operations of your firm.

To discuss your firms’ plans for the future, speak to Nathan Street, our Business Development Manager.

If you’re interested in joining our future Practice Manager events, register your interest here.