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Ready or not, artificial intelligence is changing the business of law

Christopher Porrino, chair, Litigation Department, Lowenstein Sandler LLP.

Christopher Porrino, who chairs the Litigation Department at Lowenstein Sandler, says the old way of document review was not good for client relationships. – AARON HOUSTON

Artificial intelligence has been shown in multiple studies to work faster than human intelligence, from mapping neurons in a Duke University study on brain injury to analyzing heart ultrasound tests at University of California San Francisco.

What happens when AI becomes prevalent in an industry that bases its cost on taking up time?

The billable hour, the legal industry’s long-used metric, made cases with extensive document management and review “a billing bonanza” 20 years ago, said Lowenstein Sandler LLP partner, litigator, and former Attorney General Chris Porrino.

“Everybody with available time—everybody—would be in a room flipping pages. Now [with document review programs] when you get five million records, you agree with whoever’s asking for the records [on] search terms, and instead of having five million documents to review, you have 20,000. That’s changed how document cases get handled,” Porrino said.

In a system that still holds the billable hour as the golden calf, those reviewing documents will likely bring home smaller fees. It’s better in the bigger picture, though, Porrino said.

“In terms of the judicial process, efficiency is good,” he said. “Long, drawn-out processes where lawyers get paid a lot of money maybe, in the short term, is good for the lawyer but in the long term isn’t good for the relationship, and isn’t good for the business.”

But firms don’t need to give up checks with the advent of increased efficiency. They should restructure their cost system, said McCarter & English LLP partner Dave Sorin.

As productivity goes up, value should increase rather than decrease.

“As the result of declining labor intensity, the billable hour will become increasingly anachronistic,” he said. “It’s something that clients and lawyers have struggled with for years, whether it creates the right incentives, whether it truly aligns the intentions of lawyer and client. The profession will move from its over-reliance on the billable hour toward a mechanism that represents the pricing based upon value.”

When firms make AI part of their deliverables, they can find solutions for clients and spend more effort on what will continue to require the human mind—creative problem-solving and emotional intelligence.
Even on the billable hour, Meyner & Landis LLP partner Catherine Kelly said due to the rapid-fire nature of social media and text messages, today’s cases produce so many more documents than similar cases did in the past.

“The issue is that there are so many more documents now than there were before email and social media and texts. Now it’s so easy to send something,” Kelly said. “Before when people would just send letters, it took longer to write them up. We don’t need to be concerned about lawyers not having enough to do – the issue is that there are so many more documents.”

More efficient document review and creation will happen similarly in patent law, with apps quickly doing the research that patent lawyers do to find out what’s already out there; and in a transactional practice, where AI will create the first draft of a contract that would have otherwise taken hours of labor.

If AI is taking care of more rote, process-oriented tasks, what can associates cut their teeth on to earn their place in the industry?

Dave Sorin, East Brunswick managing partner, McCarter & English.


Sorin projects law school will look something like medical school, where law students spend a couple of years in the classroom and then a couple more in the field.

“I can see that happening to the legal profession so that we can provide the judgement and emotional intelligence necessary to properly provide the service,” Sorin said. “This won’t just be a change at the firm level, but at the legal education level.”

That could be a generational transition, he said, but with the technology way ahead, figuring out how to educate associates might be the biggest problem of all.

“But it’s reality. We can close our eyes to it and wish the technology away, but it’s not going away. When people would talk about globalization 50 years ago, or were standing at the shoreline and wishing the waves don’t come in – they’re happening,” Sorin said.

“It’s incumbent upon us to look at this in a critical way to make a determination as to how we transition, to make sure we’re providing the best service we can to our clients and lead them to the outcomes they desire while incorporating the technology in a way that enhances the profession instead of degrades it,” he said.

At Meyner & Landis, Kelly believes the key to staying relevant while AI becomes more prevalent is the ability to advocate and strategize for clients.

“That’s something that I don’t think computers can replicate,” she said. “I’m not afraid of AI because I think that if you provide value, there’s always going to be use for you. It just might change a little bit.”

Gabrielle Saulsbery
Albany, N.Y. native Gabrielle Saulsbery is a staff writer for NJBIZ and the newest thing in New Jersey. You can contact her at