Forum panelists forecast how AI may change the jobs of law firm associates

Addressing an audience primarily composed of law students, panelists at a NYU Law Forum, sponsored by Latham & Watkins, explored how artificial intelligence (AI) is likely to affect the work and careers of young lawyers at law firms in the next few years.

Panelists at Forum on AI and law practice
Left to right: Christopher Jon Sprigman, Betny Townsend, Anna Gressel, and Gaith Mahmood ’07

Christopher Jon Sprigman, Murray and Kathleen Bring Professor of Law, moderated the January 31 panel, titled “AI in Law Practice: What You Need to Know.” The other participants were Latham partner Ghaith Mahmood ’07, global vice chair of the firm’s data technology and transactions practice; Anna Gressel, counsel at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, whose practice focuses on AI and other technologies; and Betny Townsend, product marketing director at legal technology company DISCO.

The panelists noted that AI is already introducing new efficiencies in areas such as litigation discovery, compliance, and knowledge management, with the potential to free lawyers to spend their time on areas where judgment and experience can add the most value. But, they agreed, AI also brings significant risks, from the so-called hallucinations that can deliver inaccurate results to potential breaches of client confidentiality when documents are used to train AI systems. AI’s impact on law firms as businesses—including the use of the billable hour and the number of associates that firms hire—is still unknown, they said.

The group advised law students to familiarize themselves with AI tools and to learn how to weigh the risks. “Engaging is the best thing you can do right now, but not with a filter of ‘I’m [building up] my skillset,’” Mahmood said. “It is a filter of ‘I just want to understand how things work, so that when they change, I’m resilient because I…have a skillset of how to adapt to new technologies and how to filter what is good and what is bad about them.’”

Watch video of the Forum discussion on AI and law practice:

Selected quotations from the discussion:

Ghaith Mahmood: “There’s probably going to be a very real time when we’re going to evaluate associates not just based on their ability to just critically think, but on their ability to tap into the tools that are at their disposal at the right time.” (video 41:00)

Betny Townsend: “Probably many of you in the room are like, ‘Will there be junior associate jobs for me?’... It is possible there will be fewer junior associate jobs in the future. I just want to note, though, that the parts of the job that are being eliminated were profoundly miserable.”(video 44:18)

Anna Gressel: “You can add a huge amount of value by understanding how a document review should run, how it should be staffed, what the economics are of staffing it for the client and for the firm…. When I’m looking for mid-levels to staff on my cases, that is a core skillset. And so [with AI] it’s not that those skillsets go away, it’s just that you actually can probably be at a supervisory level earlier in your career because you have to spend maybe fewer years just looking at the documents.” (video 46:25)

Christopher Jon Sprigman: “AI could potentially create enormous opportunities for smaller firms to compete against larger ones.… I think it’s absolutely true that most clients right now, if there’s a large, document-intensive litigation, they’re not bringing it to a small specialist litigation firm—at least not without a lot of help, because the big litigation firm is able to handle just the massive processing work that goes along with discovery, taking lots of depositions, et cetera. If people using AI-driven tools become much more efficient, maybe the small firms can start to punch above their weight and can start to put effective competitive pressure on their larger siblings.” (video 48:45)

Posted March 20, 2024