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Fear and Resistance in Legal

December 8, 2023 6 min read
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I travel and attend a lot of events and meet a lot of people in my role, from every part of the Legal ecosystem. And lately I’ve noticed a recurring theme in my conversations.

The law school student raises her hand to ask, “Have I made a mistake choosing to study law?” She is concerned that AI has made her redundant before her legal career even begins.

The law firm partner who, in the midst of a discussion of how AI will alter the competitive landscape, sighs and declares: “I hope I retire before any of these changes really start to take hold!”

The customer who tells me that has banned her law firms from using AI on any of her company’s business. Why? “Because I’m only going to pay for REAL human work.”

Fear is in control

These are just a few of many such interactions that I have experienced over the last few months. The common thread across all of them: fear.

I follow the discussion around AI and our industry closely, and one question that keeps coming up is, “What should everyone be doing right now to get ready for AI?” There’s this idea that every company, every team, needs to be moving quickly to implement practices and approaches that maximize AI. The emphasis is on actions. “What is the playbook? Which steps should we be taking?”

The thing this question misses is the cultural and emotional reality within our industry at the moment. Absolutely, leaders should be activating their teams and engaging them on a course of action. But for many, many people and organizations right now, the big blocker is not “we don’t know what to do.” The challenge is more basic and psychological. They are paralyzed by fear.

Many people in our industry are considering AI not as an opportunity but as an existential threat. They correctly view the present moment as a huge shift in the history of Legal, but instead of perceiving the new era as a time of innovation and possibility they see it as a professional death sentence.

You cannot push people into tactics and actions that they don’t understand or believe in when they are in a state of terror. Fear obscures our vision and contracts our sense of the possible, leaving us defensive and limited. It makes us reject new ideas and practices in favor of the familiar and comfortable, even if it means clutching to the past. It undermines any open and positive exploration of our options.

If you are trying to lead your company into the AI era, this fear mindset is not just another challenge to overcome. It is your single biggest obstacle to success. And you have to engage with it to have any chance to help your people and your organization.

Legal needs a leap forward

Does this type of negative thinking hold back your team? Does it hold you back? If so, it helps to place our situation in a historical context. Because this is not the first big landscape shift that we have encountered.

Progress doesn’t come at us at a nice, steady and predictable speed. There are moments in history where we suddenly lurch forward, propelled by a new technology or innovation with vast implications. Think about the emergence of PCs and ubiquitous computing and how it changed how we work and live. Or the rise of the Internet and how it shifted how we communicate, research, and interact with each other and our world. What we are living through right now with AI feels is likely on an even grander scale

There are a couple of reasons why doomsday AI thinking might be more prevalent in Legal than in some other industries. One is that so much traditional legal work involves examining and analyzing information from many sources, looking for patterns and exceptions, and that this is the exact type of work that AI performs brilliantly. The other is that past landscape shifts haven’t hit us as hard as many other sectors.

Here’s a thought experiment. Think about just about any industry – medical, manufacturing, retail, financial services, or whichever – and examine how it has evolved over the last century. They are all essentially unrecognizable today… with one exception: Legal. Yes, we use computers and the Internet now, and interact with more digital documents than physical ones these days, but at the core our industry has remained remarkably static. Law firms still source talent, structure their operations, and bill clients in the same way. Law schools have barely evolved the core of their teaching and approach. In-house teams still work in silos, rarely collaborating or sharing knowledge with one another.

In a very real sense, Legal is overdue for a big change. Even as other sectors have modernized and transformed, we have remained stuck partly in the past. With AI, we are finally confronted with a disruptive wave with the power to create deep transformation. And while that might be scary to many, it is undeniable to say that we needed a shock to our system to pull us into the future.

This will expand our industry and our world

Seen through this lens, then, the profound forces that seem to be hitting our industry appear both necessary and inevitable. The old ways of doing things were simply unsustainable. Change was always going to come eventually, and AI is just the big wave that happened to come along to shake things up at long last.

The picture is actually a lot more positive than that, however. Those who can put aside their fear and see with clear eyes will realize that the AI era holds more promise than peril. It is a massive shift in the landscape of possibility and opportunity across not just our industry, but our society and our world. It will change a lot and will certainly mean that some jobs are diminished or cease to exist. Every big technology shift makes some categories of labor and expertise less important or obsolete, and this will be no exception.

On balance, however, I believe that AI will expand the pool of opportunity across Legal. The dominant pattern will not be elimination but elevation. The best use of generative AI will be to make human workers more productive and creative, not to replace them.

As an industry, we have a lot of jobs that are very manual, repetitive, and unfulfilling. We are mired in ways of working and behaving that have significant human cost and put people in highly pressured, difficult situations. There is a reason Legal has a substantial mental health and substance abuse problem. Why would we be afraid of changing that?

Stop thinking of AI as a big negative outside event challenging you and the industry. It’s a shift in the landscape for sure, but one that you can adapt to and even profit from. This is akin to the advent of electricity, the emergence of the Internet, the rise of software, or any of the many new developments most of us have lived through.

Embrace the future

When you dig into some of the fear around AI, it often connects to this idea of falling into irrelevance. Remember, however, that when it comes to this new AI-led world, we are all pretty much starting out on the same level. This is all so new, so it is not as if you have lots of “how to apply AI in Legal” experts floating around. We are all just figuring it out at the same time.

There’s this sense that many people seem to have that they will need more technical skills or data analytics capabilities. In actuality, the very appeal of this current generation of AI technology is how approachable and user-friendly it is. You don’t need technical skills or deep expertise to get just the right output from ChatGPT or similar AI agents. The best generative AI tools will simply show up in the platforms and tools that you already work in. They will adapt to you, rather than the other way around.

What you do need, and what will matter most in the talent market of the near future, is a willingness to change and try new things. Simply being interested in the technology and solutions that are emerging today will set you apart in an industry where many are clinging to the past.

Remember eDiscovery? People used to be genuinely upset about this, claiming it would lead to a catastrophic loss in quality, massive job loss, and various other ills. Manual first pass review has essentially been gone for years, with the people who used to do them now absorbing other more important work. And these days, technology-assisted review is recognized as the gold standard in our industry, and is often required by law.

If you open your mind to it, AI is actually the most exciting development any of us are likely to experience in our careers. It is knocking down technical barriers and eliminating rote work, freeing up people to do more elevated and strategic challenges. Just in the field of contracting, where Ironclad is focused, we’ve heard people say they can execute agreements at 20 times the speed with no loss in quality. Some things that previously would have taken a dozen FTEs can now be done in moments. These are incredible advances!

Here’s what it all comes down to. When it comes to AI in Legal, the words of Franklin Roosevelt hold true: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Law will endure, the legal industry will persevere, and we will end up with a much more modern and dynamic way of working together. While no one can predict the future, those of us who can embrace it with an open and curious spirit will survive and thrive.

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Mary Shen O’Carroll is Ironclad’s Chief Community Officer. Previously, she was the Director of Legal Operations at Google, as well as the President of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC). In her early career, she served as the Profitability Manager for Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP and was an investment banker and strategic management consultant. Mary is also a passionate leader pushing forward disruptive technology and processes designed to change the future of the legal industry.