January 24 by Heidi Gardner

The future of legal work will be bifurcated into matters that are extremely high-end and bespoke, and others that are routine, commoditized, and repeatable. Some lawyers will be called upon to handle the most volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) matters, while machines will automate much of the remaining legal work. As a result, I predict a hollowing out of the middle, where the legal industry looks similar to a lopsided hourglass.

Fewer firms will capture or maintain a position at either end of the market, with some focusing on the sophisticated and highly specialized viewpoint and others primarily supporting technological initiatives. The future of contracting will be determined by the trajectory of the legal industry. Artificial Intelligence and machine learning are already infusing efficiency, quality, reliability and responsiveness into contracts.

contractsFuture contracts powered by technology will create a better data trail about what went wrong, when, and why. In fact, the more mistakes an algorithm makes, identifies and corrects, the less likely it will be to repeat them. Human beings can repeatedly make the same mistakes, while algorithms reduce the likelihood of mistakes. Smart, talented, and ambitious associates who are asked to perform mind-numbing repetitive work are almost always more likely to make errors, which will contribute to the disintermediation of law firms in the contracting process.

The more uniform an agreement, the more likely a machine will outperform a human being. Humans are, however, still better at tasks that require judgment, negotiation, or true interpretation. As contracting becomes more automated, lawyers will be free to engage in more creative, thoughtful, and collaborative work. Machines will free the mind share taken up by the mundane issues and refocus them on the VUCA issues.

One significant challenge, however, is that junior lawyers have historically cut their teeth on contracting work and the profession has not determined how the next generation of will develop judgment and an appreciation for drafting if computers take responsibility for the early stages of the process. The art of tailoring contracts is an important learning experience that will be lost to future professionals.

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