Last month, I spoke at the annual conference for the IP Paralegal Institute in Cary, NC. The topic of my presentation was how to create an “eOffice” – to move away from paper and go digital. I started the talk with an overview of the legal marketplace for unbundled and online legal services and ended it with a look at where the profession will be in the next five years. I discussed decision-making systems like Neota Logic and document assembly and automation technologies as well as online case and client management systems that automate many of the functions of a law office.
The final question from the attendees afterwards was a new one for me in the Q&A, probably because it was the first time I had spoken to a room of paralegals rather than lawyers: “With all this technology, how many human bodies do you think it will replace in the law firm?” I guess my presentation had made a few of them nervous about their job security in the future. Likewise, when I spoke at Stanford Law a few weeks later I was asked at the end of my talk what I thought the make-up of a law firm would be five to ten years from now.
Where do paralegals and other support staff fit into these new law firm models? Does the technology replace their roles more than it replaces the role of an entry-level associate? I remember reading about BigLaw laying off junior associates after the recession hit, but I didn’t see the same reporting about other firm members. Does the technology we implement in our firms replace the support staff or increase the need for them?
I don’t think the rise of virtual practice will replace the paralegals and trained support staff of a firm. I hate to say it, but I believe it will replace the entry level associate positions instead – unless those new lawyers have acquired some form of practical training in the use of technology and are comfortable working alongside the support staff in the maintenance of the systems and in the delivery of online legal services. (I won’t reiterate the four models for legal businesses that Richard Susskind lays out in End of Lawyers?, but he goes into much greater detail of the restructuring of the firm and it’s worth a re-read.)
Intelligent document automation and assembly programs provide the experienced lawyer with what he or she needs without having to ask a junior associate to create a new draft of a legal pleading. Intelligent systems can suggest provisions, cases and statutes that the firm has used in similar cases. The wheel does not have to be reinvented each time. The experienced lawyers can focus on the more recent case law, analysis and new arguments. Paralegals may be relied upon to provide them with updated case law and support as needed. Maybe a firm hires a couple new lawyers out of clerkship who come from top-tier law schools, but the number of hires will stay limited.
Clients are aware that their legal fees in the past went towards the training of new associates. Now aware, there is no turning back to billing the client for the hours of an associate when the client knows that a paralegal’s billable hour rate is less and that the paralegal has the existing training to more efficiently work through the client’s needs. Furthermore, the work that was part of the training process for new associates may now be outsourced overseas or be automated with customized knowledge and project management systems.
I envision paralegals and other support staff, both those that are virtual and those working in-person at the office, taking greater responsibility for the management of virtual law office functions – communicating with clients online, handling the invoicing and online billing systems as well as mastery of document automation and assembly programs that are integrated into the firm’s online delivery system.
So to answer that attendee’s nervous question about her and her colleagues’ place in the law firm of the future as technology encroaches into their space, I told them to seize upon the opportunity that was there. For the paralegals and new lawyers who go after the training needed to work with the technology, introduce it in their firms, and keep up with it, there will be greater job security for them in the future.