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Will Robots Spell the Doom of Junior Associates?

Joshua Schoen and Tom Martin


  • Robots won't replace lawyers, but they may end up making them better lawyers.
  • Chatbots and document automation can be a new way for associates to synthesize what they've learned and make it actionable and useful for others.
  • When building a bot, the creators must understand the different moving pieces in the law and how they interact with the document to be created.
Will Robots Spell the Doom of Junior Associates?
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If you just read the sensational headlines (like the clickbait above), you might get the impression that robots and automation will leave junior associates out of work—like workhorses put to pasture by the combustion engine and the industrial revolution. Images come to mind of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi world, like in The Terminator or Blade Runner, where artificial intelligence has its grip on humanity as we struggle to survive. But, after surviving the COVID-19 pandemic, reasonable people are beginning to question if there’s more to the story.

Doom and Gloom: Robots Are Coming to Steal Junior Associates’ Jobs

No less reputable research firms than Gartner and Deloitte predict the demise of low-level legal work. Their research states that 22 percent of a lawyer’s job and 35 percent of a law clerk’s job can be automated, which means that while humanity won’t be completely overtaken, major businesses and career adjustments aren’t far off (see Will Knight, Is Technology about to Decimate White-Collar Work?, MIT Tech. Rev. (Nov. 6, 2017)). McDermott Will & Emery partner Todd Solomon, in particular, predicts doom and gloom for young law graduates as technology takes over roles that were considered vital training: “There are fewer opportunities for young lawyers to get trained, and that’s the case outside of AI already. But if you add AI onto that, there are ways that is advancement, and there are ways it is hurting us as well” (Id.).

But is Solomon wrong? Lawyers such as Solomon bemoan the death of doc-review in litigation and mergers and acquisitions. They believe young lawyers are losing fundamental training that would otherwise prepare them as they advance through the ranks. The story is more complicated than that, of course. As we know, before document review was automated, it was diverted to alternative service providers, and before that, to document review associates who were excluded from advancement within the firm. Yet, even if some technologies replace ones that require human review, does this mean junior lawyers will have no work that will prepare them as they advance through the ranks?

Hold On: What Exactly Are These Robots Made Of?

Lawyers don’t have to worry about literal robots . . . yet. But the types of automation tools we’re talking about here are things such as document automation and chatbots. Document automation is a technology that uses logic to combine elements of preexisting text, user input, and data to create new documents. Document automation solutions generally guide the user with questions through the document creation process. Based on the user’s input, the system automatically uses that information to return a complete document back to the user.

Document automation is much more than mail merge because it allows users to create documents using complex conditional reasoning that humans intuitively use when drafting documents. For example, if tasked to create divorce documents and the spouse indicates she has common children with the other spouse, the document automation system could ask further questions about the children but not ask such follow-up questions if they did not share any children in common. While legacy platforms in the past required users to learn code, a new generation of user-friendly automation tools that visually represent logical connections has replaced these older, more cumbersome systems. Accordingly, new users or subject-matter experts can create document automation projects faster and easier than before.

Chatbots are of a similar vein. Literally, a chatbot is defined as a computer program designed to simulate conversation with human users, especially over the Internet. However, far from the chatty Cathies of even five years ago, chatbots are now a practical and useful way to engage consumers to provide data required to create documents and/or provide relevant and useful information. Chatbots’ conversational user interface is something that people are now accustomed to through their use of messaging on mobile phones. In The State of Chatbots Report, a survey of more than 1,000 adults ages 18 to 64 conducted by Drift, SurveyMonkey Audience, Salesforce, and myclever, consumers perceived many benefits to using chatbots (Erik Devaney, The State of Chatbots Report: How Chatbots Are Reshaping Online Experiences, Drift (Jan. 23, 2018)). By far, the most common potential benefit of chatbots identified by consumers was the ability to get 24-hour service (64 percent). That was followed by getting instant responses to inquiries (55 percent) and getting answers to simple questions (55 percent). Anecdotally, some users have reported preferring chatbots because they didn’t want to be judged by another person and felt safer communicating with a machine. Chatbots can also make for a more accessible interface by allowing those who are hearing or physically or visually impaired to communicate by voice or text. Another way of thinking about chatbots is that they are the friendly face to act as a medium between the user and the machine.

So, now that we have a better understanding of what document automation and chatbots are, let’s return to the question of whether they’ll spell certain doom for junior associates.

A Silver Lining: Partners and Associates Collaborate to Program Robots and Learn from the Experience

In the past, law firms looked at document review, legal memos, and research projects as easy ways for young lawyers to get up to speed, but some modern law firms are looking at document automation and chatbots as a way to train the next generation of lawyers. Wilson Sonsini, the eminent Silicon Valley law firm, has included its Build-a-Bot program for summer associates for the past three years. During that time summer associates have built numerous applications that have made their way inside the firm’s workflows. As Cherie Conrad Beffa notes, this program “reflects our commitment to innovation by providing our summer associates with the kinds of hands-on, technological innovation experience that they will need to be successful in the legal industry of the future” (Wilson Sonsini Picks Contract Mill for ‘Build-A-Bot’ Project, Artificial Law. (May 25, 2021)).

But, as David Wang, the chief innovation officer at Wilson Sonsini, points out: Summer associates need more than just technical knowledge to excel at building bots. Indeed, bot building and the related document automation give junior employees vital learning experiences when creating them. To automate a process, you must understand it first. Wang explains: “It’s difficult to successfully automate a nondisclosure agreement if you don’t know much about how those deals are structured. You really need to have a deep understanding of the process from end-to-end because you need to account for all of those things” (Frank Ready, A Post-COVID-19 Legal Bot Boom? Don’t Bet on It, (June 10, 2020)).

When building a bot, the creators must understand the different moving pieces in the law and how they interact with the document to be created, and then create a user interface to help the user understand the scenarios that alter the document structure.

During the document automation process, a creator (associate) must explore precedent documents and integrate legal knowledge into a cohesive singular experience. This can entail learning opportunities where the creator reviews material with or interviews a partner or senior associate to understand the law and how it is typically applied in different contexts. By doing so, the creator gains significant expertise in how the law governs particular agreements such as nondisclosures, privacy policies, sales agreements, and the like. As the young attorneys get more practice, they can even tackle more advanced projects such as mergers and acquisitions and financing documents. At the end of the process, the firm gains a valuable reusable knowledge resource while training the next generation of attorneys—a win-win proposition.

Back to the Future for Associate Training?

The future will be a lot like the past: Junior associates will learn about the law and its application through research and consultation with more senior lawyers. The tools with which they undertake this education will be different. Chatbots and document automation can be a new way for associates to synthesize what they’ve learned and make it actionable and useful for others. Robots won’t replace lawyers, but they may end up making them better lawyers.