Will artificial intelligence (AI) be the demise of the law profession in Australia?
Leading expert in compensation law, Travis Schultz, believes it could actually benefit the industry if there is more emphasis on professional development.
There is growing concern within the industry that work such as discovery, which is usually left for graduates, will be automated to cut costs but could instead result in widespread job losses.
The principal lawyer of Travis Schultz Law said firms are constantly facing competitive and cost control pressures and while there’s a tendency to prioritise expenditure in technology, professional development and training will be crucial in the long-term survival of the industry.
“To me failing to quickly extend the expertise of your talent is like buying a Ferrari and then only driving it in second gear!” Mr Schultz said.
“I don’t see AI as a threat to graduates and young lawyers but rather a tool to augment their work – as long as we arm them with the ability to tackle complex matters earlier than we once did.
“Sometimes firms see the professional development programs as an intangible and a low priority expense and are instead attracted to the immediacy of return of marketing expenditure or technology.
“But the advent of AI and the march of technology into the sector means that management must develop the skillsets of young lawyers more quickly, especially if the tasks they once cut their teeth on are now being done by machines.”
There is a sentiment in the industry that there will be significant technological changes in the future which was highlighted in the release of Professor Richard Susskind’s book Future of the Professions.
Last year, a young man in the UK developed an AI chatbot called DoNotPay to help people appeal small legal claims like parking tickets.
“The risk is greatest for firms who develop a culture of focusing only on billable hour targets and see training and development budgets as the low hanging fruit when cost cutting is necessary,” Mr Schultz said.
“The firms who offer the best training and development of early career professionals will not only reap the rewards in terms of output quality and efficiency, but culture and morale will benefit; as will staff retention rates and succession plans.”
Mr Schultz highlighted the recognition of one of his own Associates, Hugh Powell, who joined Travis Schultz Law less than a year ago.
“Hugh is a great example of the benefits to a firm of taking the time and spending the money to upskill young lawyers,” Mr Schultz said.
“The quality of his work is recognised by clients and colleagues alike – to the point that respected independent ratings agency Doyles Guide named him as one of Australia’s rising stars in the compensation law field.”
Mr Powell agreed that firms which drive advances in the skillsets of their talent not only accelerate the careers of their lawyers but protect them from the insurgence of technology which can now undertake lower skilled tasks.
“I’m really fortunate to be able to secure a role at a firm that places such an emphasis on professional development and being at the ‘cutting edge’,” said Mr Powell.
“I realise that being under the guidance of Travis Schultz is a real privilege – after all, just last week, the prestigious Doyle’s Guide national rankings were released and ranked him as one of the best in the country.”
Travis Schultz was the only compensation lawyer in Queensland to be ranked in the top category of “leading” in all three key areas of compensation law – workers compensation, public liability and motor vehicle law.
Mr Powell said since joining the TSL team, he’s really extended his knowledge in compensation law and feels far more confident in tackling the challenging tasks which once seemed onerous.
“Being at a firm where reading, summarising and sharing relevant superior court decisions in Australia with our senior lawyers has taken my knowledge and skill set to a whole new level,” Mr Powell said.
“I know it takes a lot of time and money to place this level of emphasis on professional growth, but it’s such a career boosting opportunity that has made me more confident in giving advice on complex issues and in significant cases.”
University of the Sunshine Coast Law Professor Jay Sanderson said that professional development is crucial so that lawyers can learn, improve their performance and raise client outcomes.
“Importantly, too, professional development helps build the culture of the workplace, as well as a sense of belonging for staff and clients. In exercising their judgment, lawyers use experience and intuition, so exposing lawyers to more challenging tasks sooner will help them build experience,” Prof Sanderson said.
“We are also seeing an increasing focus on professional skills and development in University Curriculum, where law programs focus not only on content and substantive legal issues but also on critical and creative thinking, communication and leadership.
“Research suggests that it is not enough to merely have professional development but there is also a need to strengthen the quality, and improve results, of professional development.”
Mr Schultz called on legal firms to recalibrate their attitude to training and development and to be sensitive to the needs of young lawyers who now need to grow competency in more technical tasks quicker than was once necessary.
“Law firms were once in no hurry to develop early career lawyers as the model of leverage and billable hour targets meant that it made sense to suppress the career advancement of young professionals so that the firm’s pyramid structure remained intact,” Mr Schultz said.
“But as machines invade our profession, the more highly skilled professionals will be able to utilise new technology to better serve their clients and improve operational efficiency and this should mean pyramids without broad bases in the future.
“Whether you’re a naysayer or a technology convert, you’d have to accept that machines and software can undoubtedly look after the laborious tasks that are often the domain of the early career lawyers.
“But to me, AI seems likely to augment, rather than replace the jobs of young professionals as it allows lawyers to leave the mundane to machines while they get to focus on higher-end assignments.”