Setting out the Artificial Intelligence Stall: Herbert Smith Freehills displays its wares

City firm Herbert Smith Freehills lives in a very different part of the legal eco-system than those providing services for those on low incomes. But, it has produced an interesting report entitled Artificial Intelligence: the client perspective with insights both general and specific. The paper is only 12 pages with generous illustrations: it is worth a read.

The document is rather clever marketing. It takes the same kind of lofty overview that you see in Law Society/Bar Association descriptions of what is going on. There is a helpful beginners guide to AI explaining that it is a collective name for a series of related technologies. These, say the document, will impact on the legal sector in four ways: reducing total costs; improving legal risk management; improving legal team performance; and allowing better alignment and influence with clients. The most relevant for the lower income sector is probably the reduction of cost which will come about in part through ‘automation/self service options for lower risk work’. City law firms will re-focus on higher end services.

Herbert Smith largely resist the temptation to put itself too much to the fore. That is implied rather than made too grossly explicit. But there is plenty of back stroking for the General Counsel (GC) – who employ firms like theirs. AI will bring better relationships; more integrated and efficient services and the advantage for GCs’ of offloading the risks of using new systems of AI: ‘One general counsel said that unless a legal provider is prepared to put its professional indemnity cover on the line to back its claims, there is a risk of not being taken seriously. The document is generous enough to foresee a potential battle for business between large firms like itself and ‘smaller niche firms backed by leading market technology’.

On the impact on the legal profession as a whole, the document predicts a ‘reshaping of the talent pool’ and a re-structuring of delivery structures: ‘AI-equipped legal providers will look differently to traditional firms with their pyramid-shaped hierarchies. With fewer trainees performing the repetitive work now done by machine, firms may take on a more diamond-shape with specialist employees – legal and non-legal – bulking up the middle. ‘Future legal talent must have business aligned [skills] as well as legally-trained [intelligence]’. There is something which law schools have known for some time and to which the response overall remains a little thin. In addition, the corporate sector is unlikely to incur the expense of training such large numbers of entrants to the profession as it has done in recent times.

Herbert Smith have done us a favour. Its marketing department must be very happy. This is a helpful addition to the literature sparked off by the profession’s adaption to technological change – with  the credibility of authorship by an actual firm rather than a representative body. When it quotes a manager as saying, ‘Private practice must have a longer view of digital strategy with client firms. We need them to speed up and move quickly from ideation to solution’, wise providers in the corporate field will listen (though the more literate might sudden at the language). And providers with less to invest in these developments need to ponder the challenge for them as well.

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