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AI & Future Technologies

AI & lawyer training: New approaches to professional development in legal

David Curle  Principal / David Curle Communications

· 6 minute read

David Curle  Principal / David Curle Communications

· 6 minute read

How can law firms best find a new approach to lawyer training and professional development as ChatGPT and other forms of generative AI dramatically alter the landscape?

This is the second of a three-part series looking at the rise of AI-based tools and several other drivers of change in the way law firms train new lawyers and how some firms are approaching learning and development.

It is likely that most law firms and lawyers are fully aware that change is underway in the manner in which lawyers are trained, that learning and development (L&D) programs are becoming more integrated throughout the career lifecycle of lawyers.

Traditional mentoring systems can be hit-and-miss, and it’s not clear that those charged with mentoring always have their hearts in that important work. In the 2022 Thomson Reuters Institutes’ report, Stellar Performance, Skills & Progression Mid-Year Survey, lawyers were asked about their satisfaction with non-billable responsibilities, including mentoring. More than half (55%) of lawyers involved in mentoring said they were satisfied with the level of their involvement. Yet, 23% of lawyers said they would like to not spend their time mentoring, and just 7% of those lawyers not currently involved in mentoring have indicated a desire to do so.

A strategic mindset for development teams

Against that backdrop, law firms are becoming more proactive and strategic in their approach to building out their learning infrastructure. One of the goals of this new approach is to address the potential loss of the cognitive friction caused by the widespread use of artificial intelligence- (AI-) based tools that accomplish many of the tasks formerly carried out by associates. However, it’s much broader than that, as law firms also adopt new learning approaches that address other challenges and opportunities, including hybrid working, varied learning styles, generational differences, and advances in learning technology.

One example of this new approach can be found at Goodwin. Caitlin Vaughn, the firm’s Director of Learning & Professional Development, used two common areas of legal practice as examples of how AI has driven new approaches to training: eDiscovery in litigation and due diligence in M&A work.

Both are areas in which associates traditionally had learned their craft while reviewing large volumes of documents, but now AI can perform those initial reviews to extract relevant information in a fraction of the time. “We’ve been using AI in those spaces for years,” Vaughn says. “And we do that for the same reason we don’t still use quill pens. As technology has evolved to make us more efficient, we want to pass that efficiency along to our clients.”

lawyer training
Caitlin Vaughn of Goodwin

But if lawyers are using a machine to review contracts, how do they learn to know what to look for? How do they learn to spot problems or issues? How do they learn the substance of their job?

“One of the things that the AI does is distill the variations in particular clauses or documents within a set of otherwise substantially similar documents,” Vaughn explains. “The emphasis has shifted from volume to judgment.” In other words, lawyers are spending less time on the sifting of the raw data, and more time on making decisions about the relevance and importance of a given contract clause or other information within a document. Vaughn says this skill is mostly about business judgment, and one of the skills upon which Goodwin focuses to build up that business judgment at an earlier stage of their younger lawyers’ careers.

To do that, the firm has created a BLD Practice Lab. The program takes new associates through a simulated life cycle of a company, beginning with formation and moving through nine common transactions in which a company might engage. These simulations expose associates to the risks and decisions that a company would have to face over the course of its corporate life.

In the process, associates learn not just about the legal aspects of the transactions, but also the business motivations of the client. The simulations make for a more holistic and business-focused approach to a client’s problems rather than simply learning to review documents.

Drivers of new learning approaches

Vaughn sees three larger trends that are driving law firms to use more sophisticated and responsive learning and development programs. The first is the way that new hybrid office practices force firms to be more intentional about the whole learning process (echoing Josh Kubicki’s point about manufacturing opportunities for learning).

“You have to be more deliberate in your interactions in order to create the relationships you need to be successful in a relationship-driven industry,” Vaughn says. “Associates won’t be just hanging around on the off-chance that somebody’s in the office — they need to know when they’re going to be there, and the firm needs to deliberately meet with them.”

The second major driver is that younger associates today do not hesitate to speak their minds when it comes to their own career development. “They will not be shy about saying, ‘This isn’t working for me,’ or ‘This part of the experience isn’t great.’” Here, Goodwin has borrowed an approach that has caught on in the corporate world — an employee experience platform called the Goodwin Experience, Vaughn adds.

“We have put a really deliberate focus on that talent user-experience. This is an intentional design engagement, almost like an internal consulting engagement, focusing on how to drive enhanced employee interactions and outcomes that goes from pre-recruitment all the way through the elevation process, partner development, and alumni.”

A third driver, she cites, is that the current generation of associates has grown up with technology and sees tech as an integral part of any learning process. “Now we have a group of associates who have grown up learning on Khan Academy and YouTube, [and are] familiar with the idea of micro-learnings.”

Vaughn believes on-demand formats nicely supplement the shrinking amount of time the firm has for in-person training. And while in-person time is still most important aspect of lawyer career development, it has to be supported with just-in-time learning in short, incremental formats. Fortunately, longer, classroom-style learnings have gone out of vogue, and much of the learning content used today comes in short bursts or in simulations, with the in-person time reserved for personalized and client-specific lessons.

In the final part of this series, we will look at how these learning developments can be adapted to a more widespread hybrid learning and development.

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