How Many Lawyers Are Using Artificial Intelligence Right Now?

Nadaline Webster,

Much of the conversation around artificial intelligence and legal technology has it's sights very firmly focused on the future and rarely touches on the here and now. In our personal lives, AI of one kind (and there are many) or another has quietly arrived without much in the way of fanfare at all. For some people, a combination of the burgeoning Internet of Things and AI will mean that their coffee machine can remind their fridge to order more milk. It has the potential to quietly solve many finally ending the rows about who put the empty carton back in the fridge.

In much the same way, despite fears of AI replacing employees, AI and machine learning have already arrived in many law firms and legal departments. But do we know how many and to what extent?

Altman Weil have recently released their 9th annual report, titled 'Law Firms in Transition'. The report contains the results of a survey of law firms of all sizes across the US. For the first time, in itself portentous, they have included a question about the progress or otherwise of artificial intelligence and machine learning at their firm.

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During March and April of this year, they received replies from 386 law firms and of those respondents, 7.5% said that they were already using tools involving AI. Another 28.8% are researching options and 37.8% are familiar with the area but haven't yet taken any steps. Perhaps the most surprising finding is that just over one quarter of firms (25.9%) were not familiar with any developments in this area.

The full report further breaks down those numbers by firm size and looking at opposing ends of that spectrum a clear pattern emerges. Over half (54.6%) of firms with 1000+ lawyers on their payroll are already using tools involving AI and 0% of them identified themselves as being unaware of legal technology developments. In stark contrast, only 5.7% of the smallest firm size surveyed (50 - 99 lawyers) said that they were already using tools involved with AI and 38.3% were unaware of developments in legal technology.

Based on this report's findings, it seems that the smaller firms have a slower rate of awareness and adoption than their colleagues at the bigger firms. Yet, arguably, smaller firms have as much if not more to gain from the rise of legal technology. Recent research from Thomson Reuters suggests that in a solo or smaller firm, up to 31% of their time is swallowed by administrative tasks with a resultant impact on their billable hours. The practice of trademark law tends to lend itself to repetitive, time consuming tasks. While the study didn't look specifically at different areas of law, it may well be that lawyers involved in trademark law carry a heavier administrative burden than some of their colleagues working in other fields.

2018 Update:

While the 2018 edition of the Altman Weil report “Law Firms in Transition 2018” does not include a question regarding the adoption of legal technology across the firms surveyed, it does contain some interesting insights on perhaps the biggest challenge facing firms today - change management. 69% of firms reported that they feel that the rate of change is picking up the pace. This statistic has remained above 60% over the past 8 years. The report is clear that law firms are not necessarily jogging along in step with with the change marathon.

The key question then becomes...why? The survey notes that partners at 69% of law firms surveyed illustrate resistance to change rather than embracing it to any significant degree. At the same time, in just over half of those firms, the equity partners have underutilised capacity in their working days. Perhaps most tellingly, 59% of firms have not yet felt enough financial impact to truly motivate a drive for change although the majority recognise pressure from clients to modify their service delivery.

So does it really just come down to money?

There is no doubt that profitability must remain at the core of decisions driving change or a lack thereof. Without profit, there is no firm after all. But in the practice of law, each field has its own quirks, limitations and freedoms. The practice of intellectual property law (and that of trademarks in particular) when viewed through the lens of legal technology developments, is under extreme pressure from increasing globalisation and harmonisation. Their clients are managing portfolios that are becoming more international by the day, in faster moving markets and with less resources year on year. Combined with the slow-moving and time consuming processes traditionally associated with this practice, Trademark Attorneys have additional motivations beyond the bottom line to explore their options in terms of technology. At it just might be that ultimately, practice areas like Intellectual Property will be the ones to lead the way.

The efficiencies wrought by the adoption of legal technology for all firms can carry enormous benefits for law firms and legal departments of all sizes alike. If you have not yet begun investigating how some of these technologies might work or you're not sure what the differences between the types of tool might be, our free webinar "Why AI won't replace lawyers" might be a good place to start! 

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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in June 2017 and has been updated for accuracy in August 2018.