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6 Essential Skills for Modern Lawyers: Navigating AI's Impact

By Anusia E. Gillespie,


In a virtual gathering that transcended borders and bridged time zones, a perceptive law student from the University of Namibia Law School voiced a question that echoed the thoughts of many aspiring legal minds:


“With the rise of generative AI increasingly capable of performing legal tasks, is now still a good time to go into law?”


The virtual café, held on August 9th, 2023, was seeded with a dual sense of curiosity and apprehension about the unknown – an uncomfortable sentiment that has been coursing through the legal industry. In fact, on that same day, renowned legal journalist, Bob Ambrogi, published an article entitled: Law Librarians’ Conference Reflected Legal Industry’s Uncertainty about AI and the Future. [1]


In response to this student’s query, many in the legal community might respond with a resolute "Yes," coupled with a profound “AND."


Yes, it is a good time to enter the legal profession because the kind of once-in-a-generation change that generative AI represents creates opportunity, AND:


The demand, complexity, and speed of legal work is accelerating. Technological competence, adaptability and learning agility, and curiosity are the critical skills that will enable you to use the most-cutting edge tools to both process routine work faster and harness data to best inform legal advice.


“Human” skills, the ones that machines can’t replace, are more critical than ever in any area of practice. Creativity, humility, and emotional intelligence will inform how you collaborate, communicate, and connect with people – colleagues and clients – and determine your success.


In a June 2023 Law.Com article, Linda Novosel, chief innovation and value officer at Blank Rome, acknowledged that law firms will eventually adapt to the increase in AI technology, expecting that “roles will shift [and] skill sets will change.” [2]


This begs the question – what is the mix of skills that rising attorneys need to succeed?


Law firms have long held the title as the premier training organizations for technically excellent lawyers. Black letter law and practice-specific judgment are necessary, and no longer sufficient. Here are two drivers of change and the six related skills lawyers will need to excel in the age of generative AI.


Driver #1: Accelerating Complex Legal Work Requires Tech-Savvy, Adaptable, Agile, and Curious Lawyers


In 2021, EY Law and the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession interviewed 2,000 business leaders across 22 countries with a focus the opportunities and challenges facing law departments and found that General Counsel expected workloads to increase by 25% over the next three years. [3] This prediction is coming to fruition now. The Thomson Reuters Institute’s Legal Department Operations (LDO) Index, released in October 2022, found that 65% of respondents indicated that the volume of legal work increased in the last year (while budgets remained flat).


Further studies show that not only is there more work, but it is also more complex work. The 2023 General Counsel Report by FTI Consulting and Relativity featured the chart below, showing year-over-year risks more than double in 2023, with regulations, technology, and related uncertainty a consistent theme throughout responses. [4]

Compounding this picture is the global experimentation with generative AI, a category of technology so game-changing that it has been compared to the advent of the internet.

The impact for lawyers is twofold: (1) how does generative AI impact my organization’s or client’s objectives? and (2) how am I incorporating these tools into my practice to adhere to my ethical duty to clients? On the latter query, Ed Walters, Chief Strategy Officer at vLex, emphasizes that “The North Star of the Model Rules is to protect clients, and where software plays a major part in ensuring quality representation, the Model Rules demand that lawyers use that technology.” [5]


Two recent Cambridge, Massachusetts based initiatives have sprung out of academia to help lawyers and broader society address issues related to generative AI.

  1. On July 17, 2023, Harvard Law School and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society launched the Initiative on Artificial Intelligence and the Law (IAIL) to “focus on new challenges and opportunities for the law created by the rise of artificial intelligence, from its potential enhancements to speed of legal practice and its aid to effectiveness for enforcement and adjudication, to broader societal issues such as consumer protection; investor protection; false advertising; privacy; misinformation; and discrimination and civil rights.” [6]

  2. On August 3, 2023, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Task Force on Responsible Use of Generative AI for Law publicly released draft principles “meant to ensure factual accuracy, accurate sources, valid legal reasoning, alignment with professional ethics, due diligence, and responsible use of Generative AI for law and legal processes.” [7]

We are building the plane as we fly – determining governance and guidance on new technologies after they’ve been deployed at scale. This ambiguity is a new reality. As Jason Barnwell, General Manager for Digital Transformation of Corporate, External, and Legal Affairs at Microsoft summarized in a prescient November 2021 article:


“Multinational corporations are awash in a rising sea of legal complexity… Because our clients are pursuing value creation in increasingly complex business spaces accelerated by machines, the net impact on legal includes:


· Increasing work volume

· Increasing complexity

· Increasing velocity.” [8]


The only way legal teams can ensure that these pressures do not create an explosion is to find leverage through technology. This extends beyond corporate legal teams to their law firm and legal services partners. As a result, all lawyers – at law firms, in-house, or in newly fashioned roles – must be able to process work faster, find a way to practice through the complex and unknown, and perform better than technology. Here are three skills to do so:


1. Tech-Savvy. Modern lawyers need to be well-versed in the latest legal technology tools and platforms, and how they work. From AI-powered research tools to document generation software, a solid grasp of technology can streamline processes, produce actionable data, and position lawyers to provide more value to clients. The challenge many lawyers experience is knowing where to start – the legal technology market is fragmented and overwhelming – and ensuring that technology explorations are a good use of time.


You might start by (1) subscribing to a LegalTech blog – here’s a list of resources to consider, [9] (2) connecting with all internal resources and initiatives, reaching out to your Chief Innovation Officer, Chief Talent Officer, or equivalent for a curated learning experience, and (3) engaging in external communities, such as LegalTech Boston, for dynamic conversations that may help you think differently and discover new practical applications. [10]


2. Learning Agility and Adaptability. This skill is all about “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.” As detailed above, the legal field is experiencing transformation. Lawyers must be able to quickly adapt to new regulations, technologies, and client demands. This means staying mentally agile and open to continuous learning and perspective-taking, inclusive of topics outside of your comfort zone. Harvard Law School has recognized the importance of this skill, offering the course titled: Applying Adaptive Leadership to Thrive and Lead Change in Uncertain Times. [11]


3. Curiosity. Consider the “Google Maps problem” where people are so reliant on the technology that they cannot drive to their doctor’s office without turn-by-turn directions. Don’t fall into an AI-driven routine, you may get lost. Instead, “Get curious and invest the time to learn how you can offload tasks, but also use AI tools to inspire you and make you more inquisitive about the world beyond them.” [12] Ask questions about biases, predictive capacities, and the ethical implications for your clients. This is how you perform better than the technology; it’s how you shine with it.


Driver #2: Technology Adoption Heightens Importance of “Human” Skills

The second driver of change is the technology adoption itself. As Mark Cohen, globally recognized legal thought leader, eloquently stated in his July 27, 2023, Forbes Article, Who Will Train Digital (Legal) Talent At Scale?


"Another paradox of the digital age is that as reliance on technology increases, so too has humanity (soft skills) taken on heightened importance. They are increasingly valued at a time when change has accelerated; the path forward is less certain; and challenges are complex.” [13]


“Human” skills are thought to include strengths like empathy and relationships, though there have already been attempts to feign these with AI.


The computerized version of transference, with people attributing understanding, empathy and other human characteristics to software, is coined the “Eliza Effect” and has only grown stronger with large language models. [14] Colin Fraser, a data scientist at Meta, explains that these applications are “designed to trick you, to make you think you’re talking to someone who’s not actually there.” There are surely use cases for generated conversations, though it seems unlikely that they are positioned to replace meaningful conversations in the realm of a lawyer-client relationship.


Instead, consider the technology as “taking the robot out of the human and allowing humans to do what humans do best” offers Keith Farley, SVP at Aflac. [15] Get ready for a career of continuous improvement and experimentation as there is no finish line for “soft” skills.


Here are three skills that you should focus on developing and nurturing, consistently, adapted for legal from the May 28, 2023, Harvard Business Review Article, 3 Human Super Talents AI Will Not Replace.


1. Creativity. The results of the recent future jobs report out of the World Economic Forum reflect the increasing importance of complex problem-solving in the workplace, noting that creative thinking is growing in importance slightly more rapidly than analytical thinking. [16]


Why would this be the case? Because we now operate in a world of unknowns and uncharted paths – the way through is to fashion solutions to new problems. AI can help generate creative ideas, but the fact that we are tackling novel issues means that the underlying models will not be trained on how to solve the problem. Accordingly, human creativity is required.


Creativity boils down to mindset. Specifically, embracing a growth mindset versus holding a fixed mindset. “One of the elements of the creative process is our ability to…mentally let go of the ‘status quo’ and free our mind to examine things with fresh new eyes,” says Anthony Fredericks, Ed.D. in his Psychology Today article, How a New Mindset Can Dramatically Improve Your Creativity, which relies heavily on the work of Carol Dweck, a pioneering researcher in the field of motivation, why people succeed, and how to foster success.


The creative process requires a growth mindset – a belief in change, learning, and development coupled with the freedom to actively seek and evaluate ideas of every size and shape.


Lawyers who cultivate a growth mindset will outsmart their competition through creative client solutions when others would advise that the client has limited options; applications of longstanding law to new technological developments and other issues of first impression; and unbounded opportunities in methods of service delivery.


2. Humility: We can be proud of our achievements, and aware that we are not perfect. The question then becomes one of self-awareness – what should you start doing, stop doing, and continue doing?


You must “know thyself” and learn how to apply your talents amidst new and evolving technologies. The two mechanisms that can help you navigate this terrain and place your talents to their highest and best uses are: (1) self-discovery, and (2) meaningful feedback.


Your journey of self-discovery is personal – it might be friends, family, sports, religion, yoga, or a plethora of other activities that help you to become aware. At the same time, this awareness impacts your professional self. Organizations often try to promote this kind of self-discovery through leadership, communication, and wellness training.


The majority of Am Law 100 and 200 firms that subscribe to SkillBurst Interactive’s Professional Essentials library benefit from learning modules such as: The Path to Leadership: Developing Your Executive Presence, and An Introduction to Mindfulness: A Must-Have Skill for Succes. Ask your organization’s leadership for trainings in this area as a step towards reflection, awareness, and a ontinued humility towards improvement.


As a second step, you might ask your peers for feedback to inform your direction. Crowd-sourced feedback will help you to target the highest impact areas for improvement. The challenge is that the legal profession – wherever you are in the ecosystem – has not mastered this meaningful habit. In fact, a key session at the 2023 Professional Development Consortium Annual Conference was titled, (Actually) Creating a Culture of Feedback, with a nod towards the unmet aspirations of the profession.


Speak with your professional development director or supervising attorney to determine the best method of eliciting meaningful feedback within the cultural context of your organization. You might also ask about training in this area to ensure you are returning the benefits of feedback to your peers. The most popular modules in the SkillBurst Interactive subscription library on this topic are on Delivering Effective Feedback, Leading Productive Performance Evaluation Meetings, Five Steps to Writing a Performance Evaluation, Inviting and Embracing Feedback, and Successful Practices for Preparing Your Self-Assessment.


3.Emotional Intelligence: AI is becoming increasingly capable of performing legal tasks, like drafting. This evolution is placing an unprecedented amount of legal research, data, and “know-how” into machines, meaning that the relationship component of being a lawyer – of being in client service – matters more than ever. Building connections, leading with empathy, and communicating effectively are critical.


Lawyers mostly live in email and other digital communications – which is a great place to start to be extra attentive not just in the content of your messaging, but also in the tone. Perhaps a matter-of-fact correspondence becomes more relational and contextualized; separating your communication from that of a generated messaged. Consider the fact that businesses have already sprouted to draft personalized email communications at scale, such as KalendarAI’s service powered by GPT4. [17]


The time is now to practice and evolve our digital communications to stand out amidst machine-generated content – to remind your clients and colleagues, at every step, that a human sits behind yours.


Modifying the tone of communications and leading with empathy – in person and digitally – can also help avoid conflict and deepen relationships, an important attribute when people have more and more alternative options to working with you.


To improve your emotional intelligence and ensure that you are the lawyer everyone wants to work with, consider trainings on topics such as: building relationships, communication skills, having difficult conversations, managing workplace conflict, and understanding conflict styles.


Conclusion

Yes, it is a good time to enter the legal profession amidst the opportunity that generative AI represents, AND – the mix of skills that rising attorneys need to succeed is evolving.


Today’s modern lawyers must be excellent legal technicians, while also becoming tech-savvy, adaptable, agile, and curious about emerging technologies and demonstrating creativity, humility, and emotional intelligence with clients and colleagues, placing individual “human” talents to their highest and best uses amidst the machines.


The bar to successful practice is raised even higher, and the requirements may sound daunting. Fortunately, there are good people doing good work to help you succeed – you just have to ask.

 

Notes

[2] https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2023/06/28/ai-will-threaten-law-firm-jobs-but-innovators-will-thrive/

[8] Barnwell, J. Legal evolution is industrial evolution. Legal Evolution. (November 28, 2021).

[12] Chamorro-Premuzic, T. and Akhtar, R. 3 Human Super Talents AI Will Not Replace. Harvard Business Review. (May 28, 2023)

[13] Cohn, M. Who Will Train Digital (Legal) Talent At Scale? Forbes. (July 27, 2023).

 

About the Author

Anusia Gillespie is a lawyer, intrapreneur, and “maker” who is well-known for legal innovation, with seven industry awards received over the past four years. She is a published author with Harvard Law School Professor, Dr. Heidi K. Gardner, and recognized for her popular article, Innovation as a Service and the Maker’s Matrix. She now serves as the Chief Strategy & Growth Officer at SkillBurst Interactive, legal’s leading on-demand learning partner.

Anusia's journey includes practicing law, program design and development in academia at Harvard Law School Executive Education, building and leading innovation at Eversheds Sutherland (a top 10 global law firm), and driving in-house transformation at UnitedLex (a prominent legal services company).


She is a 2019 Fastcase50 Award recipient, which honors “the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries, & leaders.” Her most recent knowledge product was recognized by Microsoft Legal as "the future of legal modernization” and won the Data Solution of the Year for Legal at the Data Breakthrough Awards in 2023.

Anusia earned her Bachelor of Science in Management from Tulane University’s AB Freeman School of Business, her Juris Doctor from Boston College Law School, and her Master of Business Administration from Boston College Carroll Graduate School of Management. She was appointed to BC Law’s academic law journal, the Uniform Commercial Code Reporter-Digest, and inducted into the Beta Gamma Honors Society.


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