Reading Time: 4 minutes

At the turn of the century, I worked at the American Bar Association. We had successfully evaded the Y2K turmoil, dot-com was ascendant, and legal technology was having a bit of a boom. There seemed to be lots of emerging companies (until the dot com bubble burst) and the market was still very fractured. It was a time when many of the bar associations had a focus on how lawyers could use technology to be more productive.

This makes sense. The entire law practice technology arena was built on the foundations of the “economics of law”. The ABA’s Section of Economics of Law Practice was the precursor to the Law Practice Management Section and the focus of technology in the practice was then, as it is now, about money:

  • technology can save time, enabling more billable or workable hours
  • technology can save effort, eliminating duplication, streamlining, and reducing support staff costs

Productive LegalTech

The first decade of this century saw a lot of presentations and articles—some of which I contributed—focused on how lawyers could use technology better. There was such a sense of irrepressible change, too, that we started to get the first senses that lawyers were falling behind the technology.

In a sense, I think this was true. The technology was iterating faster than any consumer, lawyer or otherwise, could really keep up with. Then cloud computing emerged, and we had a turbo boost on new technology that could help lawyer productivity. We had the notebooks (OneNote, Evernote), file storage and collaboration (Dropbox, Box, SkyDrive), and task managers and time keepers and electronic billing. Mobile computing expanded with this new technology called “wi-fi”.

Core legal technology apps, like Amicus Attorney and Serengeti and Juris, were navigating the path to the cloud. There was a sense that lawyers might start to adapt to these technologies finally (he says, having worked at a defunct case management company in 1992). There had probably never been so many legal tech options for the profession. Those legacy applications were being joined by the incomers, who had built an app in a different vertical and now wanted to tailor it to the legal profession.

Underlying all of this was the promise of productivity. The lure of having greater control over your time, to bill more hours or spend more time with your family or hobbies. Sites like Lifehacker emerged, helping us to cut a few more seconds here or hack a new methodology using old materials. Hipster PDA, anyone? (I actually made one of these!)

Over time, though, the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze. Hobbies became side hustles. Legal technology finally slammed into all of the ethical principles that lawyers should have been attending to from the beginning. We began to worry more about security and confidentiality.

For a long time, it seemed like the productivity focus receded. It seems healthier, in hindsight, to not chase that productivity. To recognize that a never-ending chase after a few extra minutes is searching for an ultimately elusive goal. It’s the mindset that can lead to burnout and disengagement.

Then came AI.

The Return of the Productivity Mindset

This isn’t really about AI but the artificial intelligence market is what has sparked this perspective. I am seeing more articles on productivity in my news feed—This is the best morning routine or Why having a soundtrack at work could boost your productivity or I tried these AI-based productivity tools—and more research into how AI can impact productivity.

It makes sense to me. The one clear benefit to a successful artificial intelligence application is that it will provide productivity advantages. In a legal context, it will reduce time to create documents, it will eliminate the need for lawyers in initial stages of contract negotiation, it will provide early-stage analysis in the legal research and information acquisition process.

It will save time. It will save money or create opportunities to generate more money.

With the perspective of the past, though, we may want to be extra alert about the productivity spiral. It can spiral up, in the sense that we are chasing after an impossible outcome or, in the case of machine learning, outcomes that are undesirable like autonomous weapons-enabled robots.

A “self-driving” car may allow a lawyer not to drive but are they using the productivity benefit for a mental health break or just billing more 6 minute increments?

There is also the downward spiral, which is that we start to realize those productivity gains and fail to leverage those. What has struck me about the productivity chasing of 2000-2010 is that people didn’t do less work with their productivity gains. They did more work and automated things. In the end, the technology was a benefit only to the extent it enabled us to work the same amount but with technology assisting us. It was not so much “being productive” as “generating more”: Why aren’t more universities teaching gig work? Thanks to AI, we’re in the golden age of freelancing.

A silver lining to the pandemic lockdown was that people had an abrupt halt to any productivity chase, although it pushed people who were in precarious positions into often untenable circumstances. We were able to reassess what we were doing with our time and how we wanted to use it, how we wanted to work. I doubt that there is any North American workplace since 2021 that hasn’t at least contemplated hybrid or remote work options, even if they did not adopt them.

As we appear to be heading back into a productivity spiral, with AI as the current catalyst but there will be future ones, I think it will be wise to be wary. The primary marketing message for AI at this point is productivity. We are already seeing that lawyers will need to validate AI in the same way, and for the same reasons, that they had to validate research before: professional rules. So, as with cloud computing, we are talking incremental and not profound productivity changes.

Very like with the emergence of cloud computing, I expect we are susceptible to once again be persuaded to follow a technology path that we don’t realize is creating confidentiality and professional ethics issues until we have already committed violations. Examples that come to mind are both the ingestion into AI systems of client documents stored on AI-partnered servers as well as prompt iterations that are stored and aggregated by AI models.

We have had a moment to reassess how we work. I expect that, if we take that same mindset and apply it to emerging technologies, we can avoid some of the productivity hype that, at best, can be distracting but also, at worst, can lead to gains that may not end up being healthy for the person who is more productive.