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Niche law firms poised to benefit from artificial intelligence

Disruption has opened up a world of opportunities for the legal marketplace in the UK, says Jeffrey Catanzaro.


The legal profession is being challenged now as never before to embrace new technologies to transform the way they deliver legal services. And the impetus is coming from clients, particular general counsel of large multinationals, who in this new digital age are simply refusing to countenance paying for 30 associates to do a job they now know full well an intelligent piece of software can do in their place. 

Artificial intelligence tools

Gone are the days of junior litigators barricading themselves in a war room for days, sifting through boxes and boxes of evidence; or trainee conveyancers sweating 100s of hours reviewing a 300-page lease.  Today, clients expect this work to be despatched in hours or minutes with the aid of artificial intelligence tools, leaving the humans to focus on the real value-adds: deciding on litigation strategy and tactics; or handling a sensitive lease negotiation. Law firms are now required to become adept in separating out the different strands of the service they provide to clients and working out which bits are still best delivered by (wo)man and which by machine.  

UK vs US

 Some firms find this easier than others, not just because of their culture, and whether or not they are ‘early adopters’ versus ‘traditionalists’, but also because the regulatory frameworks within which they are operating have massive impacts too - and this of course varies hugely jurisdiction by jurisdiction. Consider for example how much more freedom UK law firms have to innovate as businesses, even setting up ‘Alternative Business Structures’ -  some not even managed by lawyers - to deliver elements of their service, compared to their US cousins who are far more restricted in how they go about running their legal businesses. Yet the legal marketplace is a global one, with the largest US, UK, European and Asian law firms often all competing for the same mandates from the world’s largest companies. Those firms that are more restricted from innovating (or that are restricting themselves because of a more traditionalist mindset) are at a distinct disadvantage. But help us at hand, with a whole industry of tech providers and advisers growing up around these developments to help and guide. 

Level playing field

There’s an opportunity too in all this market disruption. You will have heard plenty of people opine, no doubt, that the robots taking over is actually a good thing, freeing lawyers up to focus on the more interesting work. Well yes this might be true, but I’m talking about something more than this: the ‘global elite’ firms have long monopolised the very top tier work in the market, squeezing out the niche specialists who may be just as legally and commercially clever for their clients, simply because the big law firm behemoths could field vast teams of associates on a single transaction that the smaller firms just can’t. But if this layer of the work in the big global M&As and in  the world’s largest cross-jurisdictional disputes is now to be done by a computer programme instead, then suddenly the playing field is levelled for the niche firms to play to advantage. 

So there’s new threats for some and new opportunities for others. It’s about getting the right help and advice to make sure your firm minimises the downsides maximises the upsides. But one things for certain: standing still is not an option.

Jeffrey Catanzaro is vice-president of the legal business solutions team at UnitedLex.

Jeff Catanzaro

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19 September 2018

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