Altman Weil principal Thomas Clay has spent over 30 years as a strategic consultant to law firms, so there’s not much that surprises him about the industry anymore.
If that isn’t enough to give him an insider’s view of the industry, his company created the Law Firms in Transition Flash Survey and he co-authors the Altman Weil Report every year.
That said, a bonus question at the end of the 2017 survey gave him reason to raise an eyebrow at the results.
The bonus question in this year’s survey: “Technology tools that incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, like Watson and Ross, are beginning to be adopted by some law firms. What is your firm’s stance on the use of legal AI tools?”
“Honestly, I’m amazed at how little AI has affected law firms so far.”
According to the latest flash survey results, only 7.5 percent of surveyed respondents have begun to use AI in their practices, and fewer than a third (28.8 percent) have even explored using it.
Among the remainder of firms surveyed, 37.8 answered: “We are aware of what other firms are doing but are not pursuing it ourselves.” More than a quarter (25.9 percent) marked: “We are not aware of what is going on in this area.”
Added together, that’s six out of 10 firms surveyed that are either closed to the idea of taking advantage of AI’s efficiency benefits, or unaware of its possibilities.
According to Mr. Clay, most of the firms that are either using AI, or exploring its opportunities, are bigger, richer organizations.
“Only a few smaller firms are into AI, most because IBM has been willing to give away access to their AI tool, Watson.”
“Artificial intelligence could be truly transformative for the legal world.”
As concerned as he is about the industry’s sluggishness to explore AI, Mr. Clay understands the reluctance of some firms to explore its use.
“AI will likely contribute further to the shrinking demand for lawyers, as well as he number of hours they’re able to invoice,” he said.
Even so, the Altman Weil principal and strategic consultant can easily foresee a time when NOT using it may be much more harmful to law firms.
“I expect there may come a tipping point when it will be devastating to fall behind.
“I think AI is the next big change for legal project management, alternative staffing… the possibilities are endless.”
For an industry that still depends largely on billable hours for revenue, it can seem like a hard sell, and no one is more aware of that than Tom Clay.
“I feel for lawyers, but change is almost inevitable.”
Mr. Clay draws a clear parallel between the pressures on law firms today and the auto industry decades ago.
“Markets for all types of industries inevitably try to drive down costs. That’s a given,” he said. “Auto manufacturers keep increasing the number of cars they make, but now they do it with only about a third as many assembly line workers.
“The legal world may have to go through the same thing. This is a very labor-intensive business. Corporations might not be pushing so hard for change if law firms weren’t so inefficient.”
Ultimately, Mr. Clay’s concern is for the industry as a whole. If, as he feel certain, the move toward increased efficiency with artificial intelligence is inevitable, sooner is better.
“I’m a strategy guy. I always want faster change.”