You'll never be solo again
Generative AI can be the partner, the assistant, the mentor, and the confidant that many sole practitioners and new lawyers never had. There's just one small drawback...
Illustration by Midjourney
I heard recently of a first-year associate in a large law firm who, not unusually, was struggling to get much guidance or even attention from the partners or senior associates above him. All the older lawyers were preoccupied with serving their clients and hitting their targets, so they had little time for the new lawyer beyond dumping assignments on his desk. He felt unsure of himself and kind of abandoned.
So this first-year associate did what any of us would do in this too-weird-for-fiction world: He created a Law Firm Partner persona on ChatGPT-4 and consulted it for advice. He asked it how to go about certain tasks, what clients were most interested in seeing from their lawyers, and how to navigate the opaque and difficult world of law firm advancement.
I don’t know how this experiment is going, and I sure hope it doesn’t become a major motion picture. But my guess is that both the young associate and the partners he would otherwise have badgered with questions are reasonably content with this arrangement. If that doesn’t perfectly illustrate life in a law firm in the third decade of the 21st century, I don’t know what would.
Now, I don’t think this is actually the future of professional development, because every law firm I’m speaking with these days is deeply concerned about associate disengagement, and handing off the lawyer mentorship role to an AI would be so dystopian as to be almost funny. But I do think there’s a less depressing application of Generative AI to legal careers: in solo practice.
I honestly don’t know how anyone manages to sustain a sole practice in the law. This job is hard enough to do when you’re surrounded by colleagues and supported by infrastructure. Trying to do everything required of a lawyer with no legal and limited administrative support is a Herculean task, and I immensely admire those who can pull it off. Not everyone can, though: Client complaints are frequent and malpractice claims are more often laid against solo and small practices, and while regulatory selection bias is a factor, it would be silly to maintain that carrying the extraordinary burdens of solo life all alone has nothing to do with it.
The list of sole practice downsides, as Bob Ambrogi’s summary of the 2023 Clio Legal Trends Report suggests, can’t just be swept aside. Solo lawyers:
bill just two hours a day on average
charge hourly rates 20% lower than those of non-solo lawyers
see only a small fraction of the growth in collected revenues compared to larger firms
struggle to find the time to put towards their clients
are much more likely than non-solo lawyers to work nights and weekends
are at risk of poor mental health
Sole practitioners are also, of course, virtually the only option available to ordinary people hoping to find legal solutions to their problems. While I’d like to see more licensed para-professionals and I’d love to see someone build a powerful online legal remedy resource, even those two advances, years away at best, would complement rather than replace the lawyers who practise “People Law.” Our efforts to make justice more readily available should start with making these lawyers’ lives better.
And that’s where we come back to Generative AI. Sole practitioners don’t want to work in association with other lawyers and they can’t afford huge professional support teams. But maybe, with Large Language Models, they can get all the benefits of these features with few of the attendant costs.
In terms of legal support, a terrific illustration of Gen AI’s potential is provided by Deborah Merritt in a three-part blog series this month at Law School Cafe. Deborah explores the use of ChatGPT-4 as an aid to bar exam preparation and the first months of law practice, finding it to be astonishingly proficient at identifying legal issues, recommending tactical responses, and showing how to build relationships of trust with clients. It’s not perfect — it makes small errors and omissions that require an experienced lawyer’s review — but it’s still pretty mind-blowingly amazing that a free online technology can do any of this stuff at all. And as is always the case with Gen AI, it’s only going to get better.
In terms of administrative support, Mark Haddad of Thomson Reuters explains in Attorney At Work how AI-driven chatbots and CRM systems can handle a sole practitioner’s initial client queries, schedule appointments and send reminders, while AI can also analyze the firm’s practice areas and create marketing campaigns and content. Earlier this month, Clio itself announced plans for “Clio Duo,” a built-in proprietary Gen AI that “will serve as a coach, intuitive collaborator, and expert consultant to legal professionals, deeply attuned to the intricate facets of running a law firm.”
Clio’s Duo also points the way towards the growing affordability of Gen AI products for solos. Small law practices can’t access the likes of Co-Pilot or Harvey or the other industrial-strength AI now being trialled in large firms. But in addition to offerings from Clio and other vendors, sole practitioners can anticipate the day, not far off, when Generative AI comes bundled with their Microsoft Office subscription, at which point this remarkably powerful assistant will be embedded in Word and Excel.
And there are even more sophisticated applications of AI already coming onstream for lawyers in small or solo practices. Dennis Kennedy’s remarkable new white paper, Adding a “Group Advisory Layer” to Your Use of Generative AI Tools Through Structured Prompting, describes a method for “revolutionizing decision-making by merging traditional principles of mastermind groups and advisory boards with the cutting-edge capabilities of generative AI.” The G-A-L approach Dennis describes is not restricted to lawyers in smaller practices, but it seems ideally suited for them.
I’ve spent much of the last month travelling across the US and Canada, speaking to retreats of large and midsize law firms about, among other things, the impact of Generative AI on their business models. I think that impact will be profound, in due course. But I think the force-multiplication effect of Gen AI on solo and small practices could be even greater, and many of those benefits are accessible right now.
At the same time, though, I can’t shake one nagging concern. Ethan Mollick has repeatedly made the point that although ChatGPT-4 is absolutely not a human being, it behaves like a person far more than it acts like a computer program. That’s what makes it so incredibly effective as an artificial mentor, an imaginary colleague, or a tirelessly patient sounding board for lawyers early in their careers or alone in their practices.
But I also find something a little sad about the prospect that, thanks to this technology, we might all become just a little more remote from each other. I think of that first-year associate, left to fend for himself by the firm that hired him, having to consult an artificial person because the flesh-and-blood versions around him won’t give him the time of day. That feels genuinely dystopian to me — a vision of a world where we build machines that pretend to care about us the way we wished people would.
I keep getting asked, “Is AI going to replace lawyers?”, and I keep saying no — it’s just an incredibly powerful tool that augments and amplifies lawyers’ talents and skills. But even as I extol the benefits of AI for solos, I can also glimpse a future where AI does indeed replace us — not in our legal work capacity, but in our human relationship capacity, because we were too occupied with our work to make the kind of personal connections that we believe will save us from technological replacement.
If this concerns you too, then I have a simple suggestion: The next time someone calls you, especially a new lawyer or a sole practitioner, looking for your advice or input or support, pick up the damn phone.
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