Law firm leaders aren’t often thinking about their firms’ work in terms of routine tasks, but with payroll as the highest expense, investors will. In a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, economists from Boston University and MIT assert that “between 50% and 70% of changes in the US wage structure over the last four decades are accounted for by the relative wage declines of worker groups specialized in routine tasks in industries experiencing rapid automation.”
Breaking salaried roles down into their component parts and automating those elements that can be done by computer algorithms would save any firm a lot of money. From much of what paralegal work entails to many of the responsibilities taken on by junior lawyers (discovery or contract writing, for example), law firms are not immune to the impacts of automation.
Lawyers are reluctant to believe that legal work can be done without the creative input of a human being, and that is true at some level. But if a machine can be taught to make medical diagnoses (which it can) and automation can replace workers from your local McDonald’s to Wall Street (which it can), the same can happen in the law. Judges are already consulting algorithms in their decision-making, and legal tech companies have been drafting documents automatically for years.
Some more dramatic degree of automation is inevitable, as many firms have so far largely avoided the subject. As the field continues to get more competitive and non-lawyers enter the industry for profit, the same framework that has been used to eliminate the need for actual people to complete routine tasks in factories will apply beyond just clerical tasks in law offices. With COVID-19 highlighting people’s physical vulnerability, the pandemic only sped this up. The power of automation is a more significant force than many attorneys realize, and it would be wise to consider how one can make themselves indispensable by cultivating human relationships.