Early February in Phoenix. For someone who lives in Chicago, those words alone would be enough to make the ALT event sound enticing. However, the real attraction was the format and content. It would take more than a single blog post to explore everything I learned at ALT, but let me give it a try.
The discussions I personally found the most instructive and thought provoking revolved around three major themes.
AI Technology for the Practice of Law
Ask 10 people what AI is, and you will get 15 answers. The term AI is used to cover a variety of technologies around natural language processing, machine learning, and what we used to call expert systems. To have a meaningful conversation about AI in your organization, you first need to arrive at a common definition or definitions. Lawyers like the idea of AI, but they don’t like “black box” AI technology. If they don’t understand the underpinnings of the application, they won’t trust it.
It's important to remember that not every automation product is AI, but that’s okay. Law firms will buy the product anyway if it adds value for the lawyer.
Another great point was that AI and similar technologies that speed “time to market” for legal services are no longer cutting edge. They are no longer even differentiators and using such technologies won’t necessarily give you an edge over your competition. However, failure to employ such technologies will keep you from having a seat at the table at all.
The Lawyer of the Future
The issue of technology replacing lawyers is a fascinating thought exercise but not realistic. Lawyers are still needed to provide the depth and subtlety of expertise required to craft great solutions to legal problems.
Technology may (thankfully!) replace certain tasks performed by lawyers today. In one of the most valuable group exercises of the conference, we took a list of areas of focus for lawyers at a large corporate law department and placed them into a Covey-esque quadrant with axes for risk and value. The low risk/low value, albeit necessary, work, including reviewing invoices from law firms and managing routine compliance tasks, represents a great target for the application of technology. Let’s face it, most lawyers don’t want to do that stuff anyway. Think about it this way…When is the last time you saw even a first year associate Bates stamping documents?
Lawyers may increasingly become cross-functional, with multiple specialties beyond their legal expertise. Just as some IP lawyers are chemical engineers or physicists (among other specialties), the lawyers of the future may well be data scientists, project managers, and matter technology coordinators. Partners will still be expected to be rainmakers, relationship owners, and legal strategists, but associates may be something completely different – and fewer. Clients would rather pay for partner time anyway.
Law firms need to master the metrics that matter (just for fun, let’s call that the three Ms). Law firms measure stuff. Partners review those metrics. However, do those metrics drive behavior? More importantly, do they drive client satisfaction? In one group exercise, we explored the metrics law firms use vs. what clients would like to measure. There was a substantial disconnect in many instances.
All the above is exciting, but it begs two questions: 1) are the law schools ready to prepare lawyers for these other roles; and 2) if we have fewer associates doing real legal work, then where will the partners of the future come from?
Design Thinking Across the Practice and Business of Law
Design thinking is way more than coming up with creative ways to make new widgets. Employing design thinking provides a safe way to brainstorm by designating no idea as too “out there.” When you think about what is possible with unlimited time, unlimited talent, and unlimited money, you may find truly innovative near-term solutions that are possible with the resources of today.
Design thinking forces you – first and foremost – to define the problem you are trying to solve. We have all dealt with scope creep. We have probably all worked on projects that grew so much in terms of requirements and expanded so much in terms of time that the base problem was no longer relevant. I hate projects like that, don’t you?
You can apply design thinking to a project as “ordinary” as a desktop roll out (I can’t count how many of these I’ve done in my career, and I can’t think of one that was ordinary, but I think you can get the point of the comment). When you look at your desktop roll out in terms of business problems to be solved and you employ design thinking to visualize the user experience, you will, simply stated, deliver a better product.
There was one other theme: the (dare I say) death of the billable hour. One attendee said, “The problem is the billable hour; the solution is fixed fee.” What he was really saying is that we need to figure out how the law firms of the future will make money. Maybe we need a whole blog post around that.
One final word about ALT…I think the real beauty of the ALT event is that there would have been value with no educational sessions at all. Simple access to the brilliant, creative minds in attendance and the opportunity to exchange ideas (however seemingly far-fetched at times!) with genuine thought leaders with a passion for excellence in access to and delivery of legal services would have been worth the price of admission.