My last Simple Steps column discussed some of the issues management will confront as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning become more prevalent in law firms. That column discussed the changes AI will bring about in the skills required to practice law well and to attain technology competence.
But lawyers and law firm managers may need to look beyond just technical skills, both from law firm staff and lawyers who will be practicing in the firm, to prepare themselves and their firms for success in the future.
A Greater Need for Soft Skills
Although technical competency will be important, the definition of what it means to be technically competent is likely to change. As AI and machine learning progress, lawyers will need to learn how to manage and interact with new software and systems or hire people who are trained to do so. Adaptability and resilience will become increasingly critical.
Because computers and AI will take over many tasks that were previously handled by lawyers, including document review, legal research, case evaluation and document drafting, these aspects of a law practice will become more commoditized. As a result, while law firms will need to get on board with implementing new technologies—including AI—just to survive, to gain a competitive edge, law firms will also need to focus on skills that cannot be duplicated by a machine (or at least not any time soon).
The skills, behaviors and abilities that will likely never be duplicated by machines are those that are uniquely human. They include:
- Creativity, imagination and vision
- Communication skills (written and oral, including listening skills)
- Strategic thinking
These are the skills that have become known as “soft” skills, many of which focus more on the people involved—including the opposing parties, colleagues, judges and juries, as well as the clients themselves—rather than just the legal problem or issue.
Although these skills have always been important, they will become increasingly so in the next several years, and law firm managers should begin seeking out and cultivating those skills now more than ever before.
Man versus Machine
Computers can quickly analyze massive amounts of data and predict outcomes, but they cannot assess the impact those outcomes are likely to have on human clients—or even businesses—in the real world. Machines may be able to identify arguments that are legally superior or are more likely to win in a particular court, but only a human lawyer can provide advice to a client that considers how a particular argument or outcome might impact the client’s relationships or future business.
Machines cannot empathize. They lack instinct, emotion and compassion, crippling a computer’s ability to make the same kind of connection a human can with another human. As a result, thus far AI has not demonstrated skill in writing funny jokes or authoring great works of fiction. It is also unlikely that machines will be able to develop truly novel or creative strategies in the way that humans can.
An injured client or a grieving family chooses a legal service provider based on how that provider makes them feel, not just whether they think the provider can get them the best legal or financial outcome for their case. As a result AI can aid lawyers by recommending legal strategies, but machines likely won’t completely replace lawyers.
Clients in distress want a human being whom the client can count on and who demonstrates that he or she cares about the client, not just about the legal issue. This requires an understanding of more than the facts and the law; it requires an understanding of the nuances of the surrounding circumstances and an ability to imagine what it must be like to experience what the client is experiencing and the long-term effect of any chosen course of action.
For example, although one spouse in a divorce case may have a superior legal position and a good chance of obtaining a higher financial award by taking the case to trial, only a human lawyer can advise the client about the emotional issues that might cause the client to choose to settle the case instead. These might include the toll a trial might take on the client and the client’s children, as well as the ability of the client to co-parent in the future. AI cannot duplicate this kind of advice, which is based on the lawyer’s observation of the client, the other parent, the children, and the opposing lawyer, as well as the lawyer’s experience handling prior divorce cases and observing the impact on the participants.
Similarly, a human lawyer involved in negotiating a business deal or advising a client in a business dispute will be better able to read between the lines, uncover and evaluate unspoken issues and emotions that might be at play. A human lawyer can consider business or personal factors that are not directly related to the deal or dispute in question, such as how future relationships between the parties, or relationships with third parties, might be affected and what outside factors may influence a party’s decision to settle.
Since these kinds of decisions or judgments are not purely data- or precedent-driven but require a deep understanding of human nature and emotions, they cannot be duplicated by machines. And like it or not, often the practice of law involves dealing with irrational people who make decisions that defy logic or work against their own stated goals. It is precisely these kinds of situations that will require a human lawyer to navigate.
Why Emotional Intelligence Matters
Emotional intelligence may be one of the best indicators of future success for lawyers who will interact with human clients, judges and juries, as well as with lawyers and staff within their law firms or organizations. Emotional intelligence is a concept that was first introduced in 1990 in an article by psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer and then popularized by author Daniel Goleman with his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.
Emotional intelligence includes the ability to recognize and understand emotions, their triggers and limitations in one’s self or in others, the ability to manage one’s own emotions and influence the emotions of others. It requires empathy, but it also requires good interpersonal skills, including the ability to communicate with and motivate others, and the ability to formulate solutions that take all of the surrounding circumstances into account.
Lawyers who have the ability to make a human connection and understand the complex relationships and emotions involved in a legal case or transaction, who demonstrate wisdom and good judgment, have good instincts, intuition, people and communication skills, and can establish rapport with clients and motivate others will be in high demand.
When recruiting and hiring, law firm leaders should seek out candidates who have demonstrated that they possess these qualities and should work to cultivate these qualities in their existing employees. Not only will these skills help lawyers connect with clients and develop effective legal strategies, but they will also help lawyers adapt to the rapidly changing legal landscape and lead their firms into the future.