Law Firm Automation

I’ve been writing a lot about artificial intelligence lately and commenting on what it can and can’t do in workplaces. The truth is, you don’t need artificial intelligence to bring your firm into the 21st century. Many other options exist to add automation to your practice. Most of these options are simple to implement and pretty cheap. There is no excuse but to bring some of these into your office.

Full disclosure, I don’t use all of these products. I use many of them or versions of them, but I’m not vouching for anything here. You should give these options a try and see what works for you.

Practice Management Software

Practice management software is everywhere, and there are dozens of good options for your firm. I was very skeptical before I started using the software. We were using Google Sheets to keep track of tasks, Google Calendar for our calendar, and Quickbooks for our billing (which I was doing 100% myself…). These products worked when it was just me, and they worked when I added a secretary. Where they broke down was when I added an associate.

My secretary and I had been using our “system” for years. We were very used to its quirks, but our associate did not interact with it well. He might have used words like “nightmare” and “stupid”. I don’t really recall. He was a bit dramatic 😉.

But our firm had really outgrown our system so we looked into practice management software. Ultimately, I chose PracticePanther, and I am really happy. But I know people who use Smokeball or Clio or whatever and they all seem happy too. The fact is that these programs all do the same stuff. Some features may be different, but I think most can do the following:

Document Automation

This is a feature that some attorneys swear by. Essentially, you put information into the system, and then it can generate whatever forms are necessary. This is especially helpful in a business that has basic forms that have to be drafted or filed with the court. For example, we use our program to generate releases for medical records.

The one thing I will point out is that these programs can’t recreate complicated documents. It’s not going to draft my eight-count complaint. I think where some of these companies go awry is that they overpromise what their form generation can do. Be real. It can do simple stuff, but you’re still going to have to do some work.

Task Generation

This is a big one in our office. We track all tasks in our practice management software. It’s basically a religion in our firm.

Our software categorizes our tasks based on clients and matters so it’s super clear what needs to be done. It has a calendar built-in, which works great. Though, I linked my calendar to my Google Calendar because I hate new things (actually, I prefer the interface on my phone).

It’s nice because I can see what I’m working on and what my staff has to do, all in one place. It has also made working from home during the pandemic easy.

Billing and Payments

Our software has built-in timing and billing features, which was a must for me. You can manually add time to matters and clients or you can run a timer in the program. I use both functions depending on whether I remember to start a timer (contrary to popular opinion, I am not perfect).

Then when it comes time to create an invoice, I go through the billing and make sure what I want gets on the invoice. It automatically syncs my staff’s billing, and you can easily mark things as non-billable or whatever.

Then, the pièce de ré·sis·tance (fancy for “piece of resistance”) is that it syncs with Quickbooks. I just generate the invoice in PracticePanther and it appears in my Quickbooks. It also tracks retainer amounts easily.

You can email the bill to clients and they can pay with LawPay, which is free if you have PracticePanther. You can also print and whatnot if you want to be old school (or if your clients are old school).

Client Portals

I admit I do not use client portals. I don’t find them any easier than email, though they are probably more secure. I’m not sure if clients prefer them or not, but I’ve heard that some work really well. If your business requires the collection of a lot of documents it might make sense to use a client portal. I think it’s relatively practice specific.

E-Signing Software

We started using Eversign a couple years ago, and I’ve been very happy. There are a ton of programs that allow you to get clients’ signatures via electronic signature. Basically, you email the client a document to sign through the software and they sign it. I have never had a client struggle with the product.

This seems like a small thing, but I find that this is a game-changer. We used to have to email documents and have clients print them and send them back. If they mailed them, they took forever. But worse were the clients who would take a picture of the documents and email that back. The copy was never useable because the picture was terrible. This software has completely solved those problems.

Paperless Office

I used to think the notion of going paperless was like the Easter Bunny: cute, fluffy, and completely made up. How could a law firm go completely paperless? Well, paperless as a term can mean lots of things. You never truly escape the paper, we are lawyers. But we have no physical files anymore. Everything is scanned in and accessible on our computers, phones, and tablets.

You need a bit of infrastructure to pull this off. You need a good scanner and some form of document sharing technology. We use Dropbox. It’s great, but there are other great options. You’ll also need a shredder or a shredding service. Our service costs $180/year.

Then, the hardest thing, you have to commit. Just start scanning and shredding. Stop using the paper files. Within months you will get over the fear of shredding. We have been fileless for about a year and a half. I never worry about it anymore, and, honestly, I think we’ve only fished one document out of the shredding bin. It has made working from home and collaborating with my team so easy. I highly recommend making the jump.

Can Artificial Intelligence Replace Workers?

I read an article a few weeks ago about how Microsoft is cutting dozens of news workers and replacing them with artificial intelligence (article). Microsoft reported that the work of the reporters has been semi-automated for months.

This is nothing new. Many news outlets have been relying on AI to generate their content. The process generally involves an algorithm going through lots of data (likely other news stories) and laying the information out in article form. The AI tends to write in a very formulaic structure and style, mostly providing the readers with names, dates, times, etc. (Wikipedia).

It’s not clear immediately whether this is a good trend or not. Some argue that AI frees journalists from having to write mundane articles about basic current events, but some journalists find it demoralizing that they can be replaced by a robot.

According to an article by Wharton, many large news outlets are using AI in some form, including The Washington Post, The Associated Press, BBC, Reuters, Bloomberg, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal (article). In 2018, China’s Xinhua News Agency went so far as to use artificial intelligence to power its news anchor. The anchor was created using computer graphics and fed information via algorithm. I can’t confirm that the anchor is still working, but they also debuted a female version in 2019. There are videos on YouTube here and here.

I think the loss of jobs in this sector is a natural progression in the transfer of basic knowledge work from people to machines. The AI can write faster, cover more topics, and contribute more efficiently to our 24-hour news bombardment.

Bombardment? That might have sounded harsh, but it’s true that our news outlets have been generating far more news over the recent years. We have access to news constantly, via television news networks, websites, and through places like Twitter. How can we possibly keep up with the demands for news? It shouldn’t surprise anyone that we would need to turn to some form of automation to satisfy our needs.

The big question that we should be asking is: who’s next? Knowledge workers are potentially under fire from automated sources. I have been saying for years that people responsible for transactional knowledge work are the next logical targets.

Accountants, for example, could be replaced by AI. Many currently use options like TurboTax to satisfy their basic tax needs, when will that expand to include more complicated matters, like audits? Financial planners are also potential targets. The average family doesn’t need complicated financial advice. Make a budget, start saving, get life insurance, these are basic bits of advice that can easily be replaced by a robot. Will people feel comfortable dealing with a machine? Maybe not, but how long until we create a machine that can pass as human? Probably not long, especially since lots of this work can be done over the phone.

I’m beginning to rant a bit here, but the point is that these types of changes are not merely coming, they are here. We need to start thinking about what other jobs will be replaced and what hurdles will need to be crossed for the replacement to happen.

For example, for AI to write news it needs to understand how humans read and it needs to understand what words we expect to see. It’s not editorializing yet; it doesn’t need a lot of empathy. It just needs to find the facts and lay them out in a way that we expect.

But to replace an accountant or a financial adviser (or a lawyer), AI will need to make people feel comfortable talking about money (and ultimately fears and aspirations around money) with a computer. To do that, AI will need to be more empathetic and learn how to interact with people on a more human level.

Who knows how long it will take to get to that point?

Exaggerated Capabilities of Artificial Intelligence

I recently read an article about Gemma Milne in Forbes (article). She wrote a book called Smoke & Mirrors. It’s a book about the misuse of technical terminology and how it can affect funding, policy-making, voting, and other things.

Though I have not read her book (and, therefore, cannot vouch for it), I thought it was an interesting point that I have come across in my own business. I believe the term ‘artificial intelligence’ is way overused.

I get it, AI is cool. It makes us think of far-flung sci-fi action. A world of self-driving cars and human-like robots. That’s why it’s attached to all sorts of products that may technically qualify as AI but are far from the technology we are picturing.

I think this is due to the misunderstanding of what artificial intelligence is. AI is an over-arching term that encompasses all forms of machine learning software. And a lot of that software is underwhelming when compared to the sci-fi fantasy we picture in our minds.

I’ll give a direct example, I used Casetext software on a trial basis. They promote their legal assistance software, known as CARA A.I., as being research-oriented artificial intelligence. Literally, it’s described as “like having a research assistant at counsel’s table.” I was told that I could upload a brief into CARA, and she (or it, I suppose) would find all of the relevant cases and predict arguments that could be made. I was skeptical to say the least.

The fact is that Casetext was actually a pretty good tool. It worked like I would expect a research tool would, but it was a far cry from a research assistant at counsel’s table. I tried CARA and was, frankly, underwhelmed. I uploaded a brief. It managed to find most of the citations but not all of them, and it made no real effort to predict arguments myself or opponents could make.

That’s not to say it was bad. It wasn’t. It worked fine. I just think it was massively oversold. And that’s my point.

Artificial intelligence just isn’t at the level being promised, certainly not in a form available to consumers. Most of these tools are some form of machine learning algorithm designed to aid in automation. Why aren’t businesses more honest about the capabilities?

Because ‘machine learning algorithm’ is not sexy.

I only tried Casetext because of the AI capabilities. Had they been honest, I wouldn’t have used the trial at all. So I suppose their ruse worked, kind of. It certainly backfired when I was underwhelmed by the actual product.

The problem is that AI has been plagued by overpromises since it’s inception. For example, the term ‘artificial intelligence’ was first used at a conference at Dartmouth College in 1956 hosted by Marvin Minsky. Minsky was one of the original thinkers in the AI movement. In 1970 Minsky said that we would have artificial general intelligence (meaning humanlike intelligence) within three to eight years.

Fifty years later, we still don’t have artificial general intelligence, and there is no real estimate for when we will have it.

I’m sure you’ve heard about how lawyers will (or have been) replaced by AI, and accountants, engineers, and doctors are next. Essentially every knowledge worker is on the chopping block.

But the technology is nowhere near capable of doing basic jobs like driving trucks, let alone taking on complex knowledge work. Don’t get me wrong, our day will come. There is reason to believe that AI will be able to do these jobs in the future, but it’s much harder than these companies will let on.

With AI’s capabilities still so limited, companies should stress the advancements we have made. We have seen great leaps in natural language processing for example, which helps streamline search engines and research software (like Casetext), and games have been dominated by AI over the last year (consider AlphaGo and AlphaStar for examples). That’s really cool and should be celebrated.

Let’s move away from the hype.