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Can Technology improve lawyers’ well-being?

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The increasing integration of technology into working life has created challenges as well as opportunities.  Some professionals may fear technology will replace them, while others are struggling to effect technological change due to inertia and resistance within the profession. The legal sector is one of the sectors which the reluctance to change has hindered the transformative potential of technology. However, if we can overcome these barriers to change, introducing technology to the practice of law can help contribute to the lawyer’s well-being, particularly through Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Much has already been said about the potential of AI to  eliminate paralegal  and legal research roles.  As much as we can sympathise with this fear, it’s important to recognise that the same fear existed before technology was given the opportunity to thrive in other sectors, such as retail. The key is that when technology can automate repetitive tasks this provides the opportunity for humans to focus on more important matters. There’s no doubt that automation  will create efficiencies in ways people cannot match, which may result in a reduced workforce due to unused capacity. However, we can’t forget the importance of interpersonal interaction in law and business.  We need to widen our focus from how AI will increase efficiency and profitability to consider what other benefits technology can offer the legal profession, such as the well-being of employees. 

The question is how can the advantages of AI help the legal sector achieve good well-being for lawyers? The recent JLD resilience and well-being survey report 2019 revealed the top key stress factors: high workload, client demands and client expectations.Therefore, if the legal profession focuses  on using AI purely to increase a firm’s capacity to take on new work, then AI will not improve the well-being of lawyers because lawyers would still be working to full capacity; that capacity would simply be greater, as enabled by AI. However, if law firms leave some capacity underutilised after implementing AI, then there will be a reduction in workload for lawyers which will in effect improve their well-being. Having some of the firm’s capacity underutilised will also provide flexibility for the firm to manage client expectations and react quickly to business-critical situations, including tech-related problems.

Naturally, from a business perspective optimising and maximising profitability is crucial, and one of the key financial metrics for law firms is, of course, billable hours. However, as other lawyers have argued, profitability for law firms should not revolve around the billable hour at the expense of employees’ well-being. The legal profession needs to adjust its business model to reward quality and efficiency.

For AI to improve the well-being of lawyers, firms must take ownership of the well-being of their employees. This means addressing the root cause of negative stress and actively structuring the business process in a way that considers employees well-being and not just solely focuses on profitability and efficiency.

By Elizabeth Agbana

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