Without question, automation and technology have become an integral part of modern legal practice—it’s been three years since the total U.S. legal technology spend first exceeded $3 billion, and legal technology has been steadily on the rise ever since. In 2018, 57% of law firms reported they were actively budgeting for technology. By now, we’ve all heard the rise-of-the-machines scenarios and warnings that robots will one day take our jobs. In reality, though, document assembly and AI tools are far from putting lawyers out of work. In fact, rather than reducing hours, automation is giving lawyers access to more work than ever before.
The advent of legal tech has made legal representation more accessible to the average person. Thanks to widespread content, innovative legal apps, and APIs that can whisk data seamlessly from one app to another, more people with lower and moderate-level incomes can now afford to buy flat rate forms, access limited-scope legal assistance, or even simply be exposed to the idea that legal representation is an option. Some have even called these advancements the next Industrial Revolution, and lawyers in nearly all fields are now evolving to take advantage of these new technologies and the new avenues of work they are creating. In two fields, in particular, family law and estate planning law, automation tools are allowing lawyers to attract a whole new client base and offer a wider range of services than ever before.
Technology is Only Adding to the Size of the Legal Pie
Today’s lawyers are under constant pressure from clients to reduce bills while increasing efficiencies and delivering quicker, more accurate results. Technology, and in particular automation, have played a critical role in allowing attorneys to meet those ever-increasing demands.
According to CLOC’s 2018 State of Corporate Legal Departments report, 41% of the legal departments interviewed identified “using technology to simplify workflow and manual processes” as a top priority. While initially, some lawyers may think it makes little sense from a profitability standpoint to lower billable hours by automating tasks and streamlining workflows, current pressures from clients and the opportunity to generate more revenue make such changes not only necessary but desirable.
Clients are increasingly refusing to pay for routine tasks, insisting instead that lawyers only charge for high-level work. Technology helps to bridge this billing gap by empowering attorneys to enhance their service levels on a daily basis. By building legal apps that gather client data, use decision tree logic to ask the right questions, and use that data to dictate the generation of document sets, lawyers can refocus their time and efforts (and their billable hours) on higher-value tasks that result in the quality work product and legal advice that clients expect. In short, rather than replacing lawyers’ jobs, technology is helping lawyers to be better and more efficient at those jobs.
The average law firm or legal department also has a vast amount of data, some of which are organized, but most of which is unstructured and difficult for traditional systems to process and analyze. Natural language processing (NLP), a technology that uses computer systems to analyze and make sense of patterns in human language, has the ability to access and analyze this unstructured data to make it accessible and useful to lawyers. NLP allows lawyers to automate the historically time-consuming process of document creation and standardization, by recognizing and maintaining standard clauses, like choice of law clauses, or standard terms, such as party names, in a single location and updating them across all related documents when necessary. Document automation ensures consistency and eliminates errors in ways that manual processes could never hope to replicate, allowing lawyers to process large volumes of data and prepare complex documents while expending far less time and money. The benefits are particularly felt in areas like family and estate law, which rely heavily on data and personal information in their early stages, and where the middle class has traditionally been left out of legal services because of an inability to pay hourly billable rates.
This enhanced ability to analyze vast amounts of data may eliminate inefficient, manual review processes, but it does not eliminate the need for lawyers. Instead, lawyers can devote the time that used to be spent on tedious, routine work to high-level strategizing and decision-making for more clients, and they can base those strategies and decisions on the best possible information. This not only better uses attorneys’ time, but also results in far better results for the client.
A Deep Dive Into How Automation Is Creating New Opportunities in Two Traditional Areas of Law
Automation is playing a major role in helping create more legal opportunities rather than eliminate legal jobs. In fact, according to a recent UCLA Law Review article, two leading experts on automation say that technology complements the work of many lawyers, rather than replacing it. Similarly, a recent study of 20 corporate law firms by Documate found that selling online workflows increased the revenue generated from first stage incorporation work by 210% in just the first two months. These findings are backed up by statistics from the McKinsey Global Institute, which found that only 23% of lawyers’ current jobs could be fully automated.
If automation is not replacing lawyers, how it is impacting the legal profession? Widespread automation of routine documents and legal forms, particularly in areas such as family law, estate planning, or employment law, has helped to introduce more consumers to the availability of legal services. While the lawyers may no longer be handling the routine work that comes with the templates, providing automated forms opens the door for those lawyers to offer their services to a wider segment of the population and to provide other, more nuanced legal services to the consumers who are using those forms. The end result is an increase in their overall workload and their total number of hours billed for higher-value work (or, alternatively, more free time).
The popular notion that automating a single aspect of the law will necessarily obviate the rest of lawyers’ jobs is misplaced. For example, automated forms are undoubtedly increasing the number of clients who now have access to legal representation and reducing the number of hours lawyers are spending on manual, routine tasks. Nonetheless, the bulk of legal practice is at no risk of being replaced by technology. Human lawyers will always be needed for the more critical tasks, like formulating arguments, advising clients, negotiating deals or settlements, and appearing in court.
Below is a look at how document automation affects two legal areas: family law and estate planning.
1. Uncontested Divorces or the Passionate Child Custody Fight
Family law is one major area where more and more consumers are turning to flat-fee services or lawyer-created document assembly platforms when they might not have otherwise sought out formal legal representation in the past. While family law issues can be some of the most personal and hotly contested issues for clients, not all family law matters require passionate legal battles.
In fact, the preliminary steps of many family law matters are prime candidates for automation. Starting with case intake, automated forms are well suited to collecting much of the information that’s crucial to a family law matter. Many routine aspects of family law are already handled through standardized court forms, such as uncontested divorces, protective or restraining orders, or petitions for things like custody, guardianship, visitation, or paternity. Automating those forms streamlines the process, cuts down on cost, and makes it more accessible to the average consumer.
Automating these services not only takes over tedious, manual work that attorneys have notoriously loathed doing, it also helps family law attorneys to tap into a latent market of individuals who were previously underserved in the legal sphere. Once the routine matters have been handled by automation, lawyers can focus their valuable time on performing the most crucial services that family law clients need, such as court or mediation appearances, drafting briefs and other important documents, or handling contested divorces and contentious child custody disputes.
2. Standard Will or a $10M Estate With Unique Tax Implications or Fiery Probate Disputes
Much like family law, estate planning law has benefited greatly from advances in automation. In estate planning law, firms can offer potential and existing clients forms to submit the basic information about their estates and how they wish to dispose of them. Logic-based automation tools can then take the information from those forms and populate it into customized wills or other testamentary documents for the firm’s lawyers to then review.
The automated forms are not adding any new elements to the lawyers’ workflows—in fact, estate law has long relied on templates and forms. Instead, automation is making the forms more efficient and more accessible to a wider pool of potential clients. Some of the lawyers’ tasks are being simplified and streamlined, but the lawyers themselves are not being replaced.
For many clients, estate planning is a fairly simple matter that can be accomplished through standard wills and trusts. These are the matters for which automation is ideal. By allowing automation to streamline the handling of standard estate matters, estate planning lawyers can better devote their valuable time to more complex trusts and estates issues, such as advising on the disposition of large estates, handling complex trusts with intricate tax implications, or dealing with probate and handling heated will contests in court.
Why Lawyers Won’t Lose Market Share, Even in the Age of LegalZoom
Not all clients who first engage with a firm through automated forms would necessarily have otherwise used a lawyer for their legal needs. Automated forms are an easy way for law firms to offer low-cost legal services in routine, low-stakes matters, attracting potential clients who might be new to the world of using legal services. The hope for firms, then, is that those clients will again turn to the firm for their future legal needs, particularly in matters that are less routine and more complex.
However, just because more legal matters are being handled by automation doesn’t mean that lawyer credibility and accountability have ceased to matter. In fact, the opposite is true. Matters that are routine for a firm are often highly sensitive for the client, and clients want lawyers with whom they can build personal relationships. This is particularly true of clients that have traditionally been hesitant to engage with lawyers at all and have made the leap due to the ease of automated forms.
For that reason, it’s important that lawyers present a credible and trustworthy front, even in routine form offerings. Even when purchasing routine legal services or forms, clients are invested in their personal matters, and the accountability of a lawyer remains a critical decision-making factor. This is the reason we haven’t seen traditional law firms replaced by online service platforms like LegalZoom or RocketLawyer that lack a “face” or credibility behind their services. Unlike those faceless online services, when law firms combine convenient forms and other online services with demonstrated credibility in one full-scope package, consumers are more likely to use those services, even if they might never have hired a lawyer before.
The Future of Law Is Automation
When it comes to the practice of law, advanced technologies like document automation, data analytics and visualization, client portals, and AI-powered discovery platforms are here to stay. Today’s technology exists to automatically gather public information and information provided by clients and dynamically populate it into forms and other customizable documents for lawyers. These technology offerings not only make legal services more approachable and accessible for potential clients, but they also free up attorneys from manual data entry and the errors that go along with it, allowing them to focus instead on clients’ more pressing needs and higher-value tasks.
Despite the decades of warnings, we are not likely to see robo-lawyers in our lifetimes. Instead, automation will continue to help make human lawyers better at their jobs, not replace them. Today’s lawyers must learn to embrace automation and technology if they want to remain competitive and successful in the legal industry of tomorrow.
About the Author
Dorna Moini is an attorney and is the founder and CEO of Documate, a no-code platform for creating robust document automation software. Contact her on Twitter @dorna_moini.