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The power of headspace: How AI can set in-house lawyers free

When used wisely, AI offers solutions to some of our greatest vulnerabilities as in-house lawyers - and creates the space to step into something new.

The department of “no”

Let’s face it, lawyers can be hesitant to embrace change. It’s hard wired into us - compliance first. Trust in precedent. Beware of fads, shortcuts, and quick fixes. Nowhere is this perhaps truer than in-house, so often branded the dreaded “department of no”.

As a profession, we also tend to be suckers for punishment, having cut our teeth in an industry which has traditionally rewarded hard graft, grueling hours and endless document review. It’s called commitment bias - the human tendency to stick to entrenched behaviors which no longer serve our needs, even when there might be a better alternative on the table. 

Of course, in-house, this propensity for risk aversion makes particular sense. Relied upon as the front line against commercial risk, it’s the job of general counsel to push for the best, but prepare for the worst. And that usually means sticking to what you know. 

What a cruel stroke of fate, then, that according to a recent Goldman Sachs report, legal tasks are one of the most vulnerable to takeover by generative AI, by far the most pressing threat of the century to “traditional” ways of working - second only to office and administrative support?

Perhaps. With growing use cases already proving the capacity of AI-powered legal technology solutions to complete certain tasks better, faster, and more cheaply than a human being, it’s hard to escape the feeling that more and more of what we do is being replaced by machines.

But as is so often the case, there’s a little more going on behind the headlines than meets the eye. Does the next evolution of legal technology really spell impending doom for in-house counsel? Or could it be the catalyst for growth, setting us free from roadblocks that have held us back in the past?

The AI revolution is here 

What makes us human? We are fallible. Our ability to learn from our mistakes is crucial to our ability to evolve. None of us are immune to this - but there is a silver lining. Think about the biggest mistakes you’ve ever made in practice. It’s highly likely that most come down to administrative mishap, missed detail, and procedural workflow. Rarely do any of our most frustrating errors emanate from high-level strategic thinking. 

None of this should come as a surprise. We become more prone to error when bogged down in repetitive, tedious tasks, an undeniably heavy feature of commercial in-house environments. Whilst these mistakes are not usually catastrophic (as long as we pick up on them in time), they do, at best, lead to wasted time and resources, both of which ultimately cost money. At worst, that missed detail in an email chain could lead to much bigger missteps for the business further down the line. 

This is precisely where legal technology steps in - and in many ways, this is nothing new. For decades now, the legal profession has been gradually automating process-driven tasks. From online precedent banks to dictation software, technology has, on the whole, made our professional lives easier - there’s a reason we now rely on digital legal databases instead of dusty old statute books.

But with the advent of machine learning and generative AI, things are stepping up a gear. Whether it’s an automated point solution or an AI-enhanced contract, matter and spend management platform, such as the LawVu legal workspace, the myriad of ways in which automated legal technology can augment the output of in-house teams is evolving - and fast.  

Not only can analytics software now process swathes of data and produce a report in minutes which would otherwise take weeks of manpower, but targeted algorithms can also sidestep the human errors which have caused us so many administrative headaches in the past. Put simply, in the legal sphere, technology is stepping into our weak spots like never before. 

The beginning of the end?

It’s easy to get carried away with this line of thinking. What if this is just the beginning for automation? Where does the slippery slope end? However, we don’t have to look far to see that, at least for now, generative AI is still lightyears away from replacing the intuition and critical thinking of good lawyers. 

Just take the unfortunate tale of US attorney Steven Schwartz, whose over-reliance on Chat-GPT in a court pleading earlier this year led to the chuckle-worthy (and potentially career-ending) discovery that it was stacked full of AI “hallucinations” - in other words, references to case law which simply did not exist. 

A relatively extreme case of professional misconduct, the Schwartz case is a stark warning of what can happen when we rely on AI without oversight - but it should also deliver a degree of reassurance. As lawyers, we draw on experience and judgment to devise strategic solutions to complex problems. Trying to achieve this solely through algorithms remains, for now, a fool’s game. And it's one that can be avoided simply by understanding what legal technology is - a tool, not a replacement for living, breathing counsel. 

Adapt and survive 

What then, about the doom and gloom foretold by Goldman Sachs? The answer lies, primarily, in nuance. True - the report predicts that a high percentage of legal tasks will soon be capable of being performed by AI. However, it says nothing about the percentage of skilled legal tasks at risk. Indeed, many other reports, like this recent paper from the McKinsey Global Institute, tell a radically different story, signaling early signs not only of strong resilience to the AI revolution within the legal sector, but of predicted exponential growth. 

How do these reports manage to reach such opposing conclusions? To put it simply, the Goldman Sachs report does not address the diversity and complexity of so much of the higher work performed within the legal function - and particularly that which is carried out in-house. The McKinsey report, on the other hand, reflects the enduring role that human intelligence continues to play in delivering robust and strategic legal advice. More importantly, it accounts for the capacity of the legal industry to integrate and adapt, utilizing technological advances to streamline mundane tasks which have never exactly been our strong suit as a profession.

Yes, the legal world is facing a hard reset across the board. The way we spend our days as in-house lawyers is about to change, and junior staff who carry out process-driven work may well have to adapt their skills radically to survive. But when it comes to the big thinkers, there’s truth behind the old adage that we have our best ideas in the shower. It’s only when our minds are free to play that we are able to step into our true potential - and AI technology is beginning to truly offer us the chance to do just that. 

Cautious we may be, but the data shows that lawyers are also extremely resilient. By leveraging smart, established AI tools with proven use cases for the in-house legal function, we have the opportunity to step back from the front lines, free up space to breathe, and play a greater role than ever before in pushing our organizations forward. And with time as our most precious asset, it’s not an opportunity to pass up lightly. 

If you’re curious to learn more about how AI-powered legal technology could elevate your in-house legal function and help you get ahead, there’s never been a better time to get stuck in. For a wealth of free online learning resources and certifications to set you - and your business - up for success, click here. 

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