Could Technology that Reduces the Need for Billable Hours Pose a Threat to Lawyers?

February 10, 2016

Lawyers, and the practice of law, have played a key role throughout history and continue to do so today. For centuries, lawyers have had a fairly consistent process of analyzing the law and offering their services to others. Over the past several years, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have created digital technology to change the ways of the world, including industries like healthcare and finance, yet the practice of law has remained fairly unchanged. Practicing law requires hours of work and dedication, almost all of which are billable to clients. These recent technological developments in the legal field may make those billable hours a little harder to come by. Overall, however, there is no pressing threat to the necessity of lawyers and the work they do.

“Automation is not going to interfere with lawyers appearing in court or providing advice and counsel. . . . There’s all sorts of work to be done.”

Recently, Andreessen Horowitz, a multi-billion dollar venture capital firm, led an investment in excess of eight million dollars in Everlaw, a technological startup company that helps lawyers sort through documents, emails, and other discoverable evidence through a cloud-based service. Everlaw is company composed of experts in the fields of law, computer science, business, physics, math, and sports; with the goal of reducing the time and cost of legal research and discovery through legal technology. Everlaw is not the only startup company to have this goal of changing the legal field. Other startups, such as RocketLawyer, Clio, and Judicata have appeared over the past few years, all seeking to improve the efficiency of the practice of law while also making it less expensive.
According to Julia Greenberg, a write for WIRED, in order to understand how legal technology could have a significant impact on the practice of law, it is important to understand how the legal profession works, and why it has not been urgent to change. First off, law firms typically compete with each other, which discourages collaboration. There is no driving need for improvement and innovation because, to many, things are fine the way they are; unlike other industrial fields where innovation and increased technology usually leads to a competitive advantage.
Second, firms typically bill by the hour. Legal technology creating more efficient processes could mean exponentially fewer billable hours for lawyers. These processes appearing within new legal technologies are typically performed by human junior associates, with many senior associates also benefitting from the billable hours. If money is coming into the system, there is little reason to change the way things work. Lastly, the legal profession is a very people-based process. Human interaction between lawyers and clients is necessary to really get to the core of helping people with their legal problems.
Even though the practice of law has seen minimum changes over the years, more change is yet to come. These new technological startup companies have sought to alleviate the pains of the slow process of analyzing legal documents and documenting due diligence. Some of these companies claim to offer better legal research than what is available at traditional law firms by using automation to aid the discovery phase of lawsuits. Others seek to phase out the jobs performed by traditional law firms and minimize legal fees paid to lawyers. RocketLawyer, for example, claims it can help customers create legal documents very cheaply through step-by-step instructions.
The legal profession offers a variety of services to society. These services include everything from answering basic legal questions, document review and creation, entering and researching basic legal information, and providing guidance from simple issues to complex strategic legal planning. These new legal technologies might bring significant changes to the practice of law; however, no matter how much technology is introduced into the field, no amount of automation can ever fully replace the genuine lawyer-client, face-to-face interactions people expect from traditional law firms.