AI & Law: Boxing BigLaw Into AI-Based Legal Services

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The future of BigLaw and the adoption of AI in the practice of law

by Dr. Lance B. Eliot

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Key briefing points about this article:

  • Law firms of any notable size are especially tricky to manage and ably adjust to market shifts
  • BigLaw is viewed as likely to have internal squabbles over the advent of AI-based legal services
  • Some law firms will quickly embrace AI, others will ignore or deflect AI emerging changes
  • One prediction is that BigLaw will inexorably have to adapt to and utilize AI or suffer woes
  • Thus expect to see BigLaw ultimately grasp onto and embody AI-based legal services


Any law firm that is even a modicum of size and scale can be quite challenging to successfully manage. There is the continual tug-of-war over which legal services to provide and whether the chosen set is well suited to ongoing sustenance and potential growth of the firm. Being dependent upon the labor employed to provide said services is equally a nightmare. Do we have the right number of attorneys, or are we understaffed or overstaffed? How do we keep the good ones and gently nudge out the sour ones? Some insist that having to be a leader in a law firm is akin to the legendary chore of trying to herd cats.

For those that like to couch things in a loftier tone, the in’s and out’s of running a law firm are often compared to the rigors of playing chess. The choices underlying which legal services to be proffered and how to best parlay them is akin to leveraging the pieces on a chessboard, aiming to use whatever strengths you have and trying to avert possible weaknesses. The legal services promulgated must be matched to hoped-for demand from clients and aligned with the resources and legal-beagle steeped capabilities that the firm can suitably bring to the marketplace.

One ongoing question that has nagged the legal profession seemingly forever is the extent to which technology can or ought to be utilized as a strategic and interwoven element into the embodiment of legal services.

At first glance, some contend that the spate of law profession tech has a mere backroom purpose and requires scant attention. This relatively narrow mindset usually entails making sure that the legal teams have just sufficient tech in-hand such as word processing, spreadsheets, and some semblance of online access, at a barebones capacity, and otherwise LegalTech is considered an unappealing and undesirable cost that has to be kept to a rock-bottom minimum.

Others take a wider perspective and see LegalTech as increasingly being instrumental to their legal efforts, encompassing not meager background proclivities but also standing at the forefront of what the firm undertakes and how it presents itself to the world. The tension or strain between perceiving legal-oriented tech as a low-value high-cost investment versus being a high-value ROI-justifiable one is an ongoing form of angst and struggle within most law firms today.

AI As A Game Changer

Suppose we toss into the game a kind of interloper, namely AI.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is gradually being advanced and bolstering the capabilities of modern LegalTech. The use of AI’s Natural Language Processing (NLP) facilities is making strides in aiding e-Discovery, along with boosting the manner and ease of drafting or analyzing legal contracts, and so on. Machine Learning (ML) and Deep Learning (DL) have especially pushed forward in the legal realm. These computationally sophisticated modeling features can do data related pattern matching that is leveraged when searching for appropriate precedents in a large corpus of court cases and otherwise stridently augments prior and cruder methods of making such queries.

Most would agree that AI in the law is going to proceed apace and in fact, accelerate over time. Though today’s AI is still relatively simplistic and not a hallmark game-changer per se, as yet, the belief is that AI will noticeably improve and be further extended and applied to the field of law. Eventually and inevitably, there will be a threshold reached at which AI in the law becomes a crucial must-have instead of an optional take-it or leave-it proposition.

In short, there will be some law firms that opt to get on board with adopting and using AI, including infusing state-of-the-art AI-based LegalTech into their ongoing and possibly expanding set of legal services offerings, and meanwhile other law firms that will choose to do the classic wait-and-see, dragging their feet until the friction of not using AI becomes so hot that something breaks the stalemate.

Let’s consider how this envisioned future will impact BigLaw.

Presumably, for those BigLaw members that end up embracing AI, they will wrap the capabilities into their legal services and benefit accordingly, assuming they do so smartly and with chess-like shrewdness.

Predictions are that the AI-powered LegalTech will imbue AI Legal Reasoning (AILR) of a semi-autonomous nature, later on advancing to be autonomous realm, and thus can undertake various legal-oriented tasks. This initiative will mean that human lawyers can be more productive as a result of using the AILR, similar to using a backhoe instead of a hand trowel, or in the case of playing chess, it would be analogous to having an AI-based chess master at your side, being available at all times and able to conduct legal analyses and offer a modicum of legal acumen.

The legal teams of human attorneys would be more productive and able to take on more cases and deeper cases than via today’s methods. They would be able to speed-up their legal work. The AILR would also provide a secondary double-check, being able to point out potential legal gotchas, omissions, or other weaknesses or even failings in the legal case efforts underway.

For details on this and other AI and law topics, including sample code excerpts and salient explanations, see my textbook entitled “AI and Legal Reasoning Essentials” at this link here:

If that envisioned future arises, the question then logically comes up as to whether that adoption of AI will be a competitive differentiator or not.

In other words, for those BigLaw that do adopt AI, would they be rewarded by the marketplace for having done so? If not, it would seem to showcase that the BigLaw that has not chosen to immerse AI into their offerings have apparently made the better choice, doing so by presumably foregoing the cost and effort of such adoption and remain seemingly unscathed by the market.

One assertion is that clients will indubitably react to those law firms that indeed have AI versus those that do not have AI.

Clients Going Where AI Is

Here’s the thinking involved.

A client is trying to decide which BigLaw to choose for conducting needed legal efforts. Assume that this involves an assessment or evaluation of what the BigLaw candidate firms can provide, entailing the types of legal services, the depth of those legal services, the availability of those legal services, the cost of those legal services, and so on.

If the case can be made that the AI-powered legal services are potentially less costly, and at an equal level of quality, perhaps even higher quality due to the double-checking enabled by the AI, this naturally gives those AI-adopters an added competitive edge. Ergo, clients of a mindfully discerning bent would likely realize this significant difference and amply consider it, seriously and with keen import.

There is also the potential sense of image or cachet too. Those BigLaw firms with the AI embellished instrumentality will be able to portray their firm as more up-to-date and earnestly seeking ways to improve their legal services offerings. That alone can be a substantive demarcation, even if the AI embodiment does not necessarily rise to an overtly demonstrative force in how their legal services are being rendered.

You could argue that those of the BigLaw without AI in its midst will hence be at an aching disadvantage, distinctly so.

Clients would potentially instead choose a competitor, one that has acclimated itself to AI Legal Tech. Also, a clever negotiating ploy by clients might be that a prospective (or existing) client ought to get better pricing since the BigLaw non-adopter of AI has not had to bear the costs of getting up-to-speed on AI. Furthermore, the non-adopter will seemingly not be able to competitively match the pricing that the AI-adopters can achieve, and thus any bid by the non-adopter is inherently suspect as being overpriced (or, can be claimed as such, in a chess-like bluffing gambit).

You might be wondering why this would happen to solely the BigLaw firms and not also reach into the rest of the law entities pool.

Some hypothesize that the modest-sized and smaller law firms will somehow get a momentary free pass on the matter. The assumption is that clients will realize that the cost of AI adoption is not viable for those petite-sized entities and those such clients will graciously look the other way accordingly. It would seem doubtful that this veritable get-out-of-jail-free card would last very long.

As such, your instincts that ostensibly this matter will confront smaller and even the smallest of law firms seem justifiably credible. In that sense, law firms of all sizes will be vulnerable to the AI adoption calculus, and therefore you can substitute BigLaw with something like AllLaw in the preceding discourse.

Perhaps most notably, one viewpoint is that the AI will be part-and-parcel of using any LegalTech tools. In that manner, and based on the variety of pricing options by the AI touting LegalTech vendors, just about any law firm would find the AI capabilities relatively affordable. If that particular prophecy comes true, it has other somewhat potentially earth-shattering impacts in the legal profession. For example, perhaps the playing field becomes leveled across all law firms and the AI capabilities turn the industry on its head.

Here’s the kicker: The existence of a BigLaw evaporates as a premise, meanwhile, the nature of using legal services becomes a highly fragmented business with no particular advantage for being a larger collective versus a smaller or loosely federated assembly.

One supposes that this blasphemous scenario is something of great wear-and-tear upon the minds of those leading BigLaw. How are they to cope in such a predicament? Will they get boxed in, and ultimately be boxed out too?

All in all, much teeth grinding seems to be in store.


Of course, all of this is not yet a reality, and whether it is a dream, perhaps a scary one, or perhaps a treasured one, depends upon your stance concerning AI, the legal profession, and the proffering of legal services. To ensure that every lawyer and law partner stays awake at night thinking about these future events, consider the outsized possibility that AI Legal Reasoning will become so autonomous that no human barristers are needed at all. Imagine how that would change the legal profession.

With that being said, time to go get another strong cup of coffee and get back to the day-to-day work of practicing the law, and set aside, albeit briefly, what the future of AI and law holds.

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Copyright © 2020 Dr. Lance Eliot. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lance B. Eliot is a renowned global expert on AI, Stanford Fellow at Stanford University, was a professor at USC, headed an AI Lab, top exec at a major VC.

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