Current projections have 4.5 million American workers who drive cars, trucks and buses being replaced by computerization/robotics over the next fifteen years. Cashiers, surgeons and tax preparers are also in the cross hairs of automation. The ramifications for our society and economy are exciting, but it is a terrifying prospect for those who stand to lose their livelihood. Just ask Best Buy and Barnes & Noble who are struggling to compete, or one of the many retailers that has gone bankrupt in the wake of Amazon.
Automation in the legal industry is far from prime time today. Despite a burst of applications in the e-discovery space over the past decade, most of the automation tools designed for the legal industry are just scratching the surface, and haven't made a meaningful impact yet to industry headcount.
So, how many lawyers will be put out of work by automation? Forecasters say lots of them 20 years from now. Between now and then, there are few precise estimates. One thing is for sure- the number is not zero. Attorneys need to be focused on this risk to their profession, and may find the opportunity to benefit instead of being hurt by these changes.
What can a small law firm partner do to protect against this risk?
(1) Adopt automation where you can. Take the time to understand the things you can do to improve efficiency in your practice, and be willing to spend when opportunities present themselves.
(2) Give clients access to your work flow. Your clients will work to automate their operations, and will take you in directions that will help you keep pace with changes.
(3) Don't lose sight of the fact that relationships the are most important asset you have. Your clients have a sense of loyalty to you; and strong relationships are less likely to be broken by technology than weak ones. Keep your clients close and they will help you navigate these changes.
(4) Focus on providing an end-to-end service delivery experience. For example, if you negotiate contracts for clients, archive them and manage deadlines/expiration that are terms in the agreements. The more you are part of your client's process, the more likely that you are included in process changes, instead of being automated out.
(5) Be irreplaceable. You know you are doing something right when your clients call to ask you to do legal work that is way out of your expertise. That means they see you as their lawyer, not their real estate lawyer or their litigator. Clients that value the guidance they seek from their attorneys are sticky.
(6) Educate yourself. Pay attention to the changes that are happening, and look for ways to adapt. This is a trend you cannot ignore away.
Staying relevant is a lifelong pursuit in any career, but the changes on the horizon in the legal industry will be particularly challenging. Pay attention.
David DePietto is the founder and CEO of NexFirm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org