Will Generative AI destroy law firms? Only if lawyers are too fixed in their ways to see the possibilities that lie beyond who we’ve always been and what we’ve always done.
Illustration by Midjourney
As you might have gathered from the many recent entries here concerning AI and the law, I think legally trained Large Language Models and other generative artificial intelligence (Gen AI) will have a transformative impact on the legal services sector. If you’d rather not read all nine of those articles, and who could blame you, here are my views to date in one paragraph
The immediate impact of Gen AI on legal services will be to introduce unprecedented efficiency to the production of countless legal documents and processes. For most of the last century, lawyers have personally performed this work, spending and billing hours or parts of hours to accomplish each task. Law firms have used this production method to provide on-the-job training for inexperienced lawyers and have leveraged those hours to generate profits for their partners. But LLMs can now do the same work in seconds, as effectively as lawyers can today and much better in the near future. This is, among other things, a very serious problem for law firms’ business models and talent development practices, not to mention a real challenge to lawyer education and training and potentially a revolution in access to justice.
That’s the extent to which I currently feel certain about the impact of AI on the law. But I’ve heard a more radical notion making the rounds, contending that Gen AI actually represents an existential threat to the legal profession — that it will destroy law firms, and ultimately even eliminate lawyers, by taking away virtually all the work that sustains them. The argument more or less goes like this:
- LLMs will grow ever-more powerful and will become capable of accomplishing extremely complex knowledge and reasoning tasks (for what it’s worth, most AI watchers seem to consider this a very likely outcome).
- This turn of events will eliminate more than 90% of the demand law firms meet, wiping out firms’ inventory of billable hours and leaving only a thin layer of top-level work to occupy a few virtuoso practitioners.
- Bereft of work that clients have given over to AI, law firms inevitably will fold like houses of cards, triggering a widespread disintermediation of lawyers from the legal services process that could lead to the profession’s extinction.
Every good AI story has a chapter on “The Apocalypse,” and this is what that chapter looks like for the legal profession. And in fairness, we probably should expect to see Gen AI tear through much of law firms’ inventory in the coming years, like a combine harvester ripping through a wheat field. So you might soon hear this scenario invoked with more frequency and taken somewhat more seriously.
Now, to be very clear, I think it’s highly unlikely that this is the future of the legal sector. But it’s not impossible. In some respects, it isn’t even that implausible. Whether law firms in general, and any single law firm in particular, can avoid this fate might come down, oddly enough, to just one thing: whether lawyers can approach AI’s extraordinary and unprecedented challenges with a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.
As you might know, Carol Dweck’s 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success defined a “growth mindset” as one that views intelligence and abilities as learnable and capable of improvement through effort, whereas a “fixed mindset” views those same traits as inherently stable and unchangeable over time. The fixed mindset says, “I’ve only got X and Y talents and therefore only do A and B.” The growth mindset says, “Hey, I could take on the whole freaking alphabet.”
Most lawyers I’ve met tend to have fixed mindsets. They define and value intelligence in terms of sheer brainpower; they see their past successes as proof of their inherent strengths; they fear criticism and feel threatened by the success of others. Mistakes are unacceptable, never to be discussed; data is invalid if it conflicts with core beliefs; any setback is regarded as a personal failure and any pushback as a personal threat. Remind you of any lawyers you know?
More generally, a fixed mindset believes resources are finite and exhaustible, whereas a growth mindset believes new opportunities are always possible and the pie can be made bigger. In the fixed-mindset organization, all games are zero-sum: my gain is your loss, and vice versa (hello, partner compensation disputes). In the growth-mindset organization, chances are worth taking because they might provide greater rewards for everyone.
The only way to increase revenue in a fixed-mindset law firm is to find a new client that can give you legal work, or to take away the work that another firm currently does for its clients — usually by hiring away the responsible partner and paying them whatever they ask. This, of course, describes the business development strategy of almost every law firm you know.
In the context of Generative AI and the law, a fixed mindset sees the emergence of Gen AI as potentially catastrophic, because it could take away most of the work that law firms do — and that’s all the work there is or ever will be. The pool will be drained, and nothing can fill it again. Fear of scarcity is the anxious fuel that powers most law firms, because the fixed mindset accepts scarcity as a permanent condition. From that perspective, the emergence of Gen AI in the law constitutes the onset of a deadly famine.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, we find the smaller number of growth-mindset lawyers and law firms. As you might expect, these tend to be upbeat, positive, glass-half-full folks who believe in their own potential and are always willing to try new things. (You might find them a little tiresome after a while, if we’re being honest.)
But these lawyers and their law firms are better positioned to respond to the advance of Gen AI, because they’re likelier to understand something about Generative AI that few people have fully grasped: Its most powerful feature is actually not increasing the efficiency of straightforward tasks. Gen AI is an unbelievably powerful creativity engine. Probably it’s the greatest tool for conceiving and developing new ideas we’ve ever invented.
I think Gen AI is going to help bring about a Cambrian Explosion of new concepts, perspectives, theories, and possibilities, and it will do so by augmenting the world’s undisputed supreme creativity engine — the human mind. Harvard and MIT have already explored the opportunities here for businesses, but the potential to generate creative new concepts applies equally to everyday situations — to grab one fun example just from earlier this morning, Ethan Mollick used Bing’s ChatGPT-4 to generate wild but intriguing ideas for toothbrushes based on tarot cards, nuclear power plants, and Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies.
Both fixed- and growth-mindset lawyers share at least one trait in common: They’re amazingly creative when finding solutions to clients’ problems. Gen AI augments and intensifies that creativity, like a gifted intern that uses all the world’s knowledge, boundless energy, and nearly instantaneous response time to generate new possibilities and narrow down practical solutions.
But Gen AI can also answer the question I posed above: What happens if artificial intelligence solves almost all the client needs lawyers have always met? That answer is: Find new ones. The same tool whose efficiencies wiped out your old inventory can also help you creatively identify and assemble a far bigger, more interesting, and more valuable collection of opportunities for using your intellectual gifts and legal expertise to help your clients.
- What latent markets or potential lines of business is my client overlooking or underestimating?
- What are five threats to my client’s current position that they probably don’t see coming today?
- Describe how climate change in my client’s region might cause them harm and increase their risks in future.
These are just a few of the questions (modified for specific situations) that you and your clients can collaborate to ask Gen AI and mull over the answers for possible action. But these are standard-issue brainstorming queries. The great thing about Gen AI is that you can make this process way more fun and interesting:
- Using role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons as a model, come up with eight ways the client’s employees can collaborate more effectively.
- Based on the entrepreneurial strategies and acumen of Taylor Swift, suggest four examples by which the client could grow their own operations.
- If an alien civilization made contact with humanity tomorrow, through what five actions could the client become the undisputed leader in their area?
None of these queries is directly related to getting or doing “legal work” for clients. They’re meant to jostle and jump-start and generate new possibilities by which an unrealized need could be met or an unrecognized opportunity could be pursued. The lawyers who take advantage of these novel needs and fresh opportunities will share these characteristics:
- They won’t believe that the supply of legal work is finite and scarce — they’ll think that as the universe of familiar legal tasks and transactions and documents is consumed by AI, a bigger universe of strategic, advisory, and preventative legal needs, previously hidden by the mass of drudge work, will emerge and shine.
- They won’t accept that the skills and abilities of lawyers are limited and locked in — they’ll know that lawyers are incredibly smart, resourceful, and helpful people who just need the chance and the encouragement to identify higher uses, build greater capabilities, and pursue more valuable and profitable activities.
- They won’t assume that lawyers and law firms have reached a dead end — they’ll understand that we’ve entered a new legal economy in which lawyers are valued as counsellors, mentors, guides, inspirations, and leaders who use their intelligence and insights to make life better for the people who hire them.
Let’s not kid ourselves: All of this will be an enormous change for lawyers, a very challenging transition to process and navigate. But it will not be impossible. Not even close. If you have a growth mindset, getting through it will be much easier and more enjoyable; if you feel that you don’t, I promise you can develop one. The fixed mindset can’t see anything but what we’ve always been and what we’ve always done; the growth mindset can already glimpse the extraordinary possibilities that lie beyond. You can, too.
So get ready to rethink all the restrictions, reassess all the shortcomings, and recalculate everything else you believed lawyers couldn’t do and assumed law firms couldn’t be. A whole new model is coming our way. Welcome to Law Unlimited.
Editor’s Note: This article is republished with the author’s permission with first publication on his Substack.