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AI & Future Technologies

AI & lawyer training: The new drivers of professional development

David Curle  Principal / David Curle Communications

· 7 minute read

David Curle  Principal / David Curle Communications

· 7 minute read

Law firms' successful adaptation to the increased use of advanced artificial intelligence, such as ChatGPT and other forms of generative AI, may hinge upon how firms change their approach to lawyer training and development

This is the first 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.

The legal profession finds itself in a new wave of hype about artificial intelligence (AI) due to the popularity of ChatGPT and other forms of generative AI. There’s no question that AI has now made significant inroads in legal practice, with machine learning methods currently at work in eDiscovery, contract review and analysis, document generation, and legal research.

The amazing interest in the public facing ChatGPT, and ongoing discussions about how it might be leveraged in legal work, is largely driven by the fact that anyone can test it out and use it today. Even in its current, fairly primitive form and with all its limitations, it’s easy for lawyers to see how generative AI could take on some of the tasks that are now handled by human lawyers.

The recent Thomson Reuters Institute survey report, , shows how a new generation of AI-based tools is attaining high levels of awareness and interest in a very short time — much more quickly than earlier generations of AI tools. In fact, 80% of the respondents to the survey say that generative AI can already be applied to legal work, while just more than half say it should be. Contrast that with the skepticism that earlier applications for AI had faced, in eDiscovery or contract analysis, for example.

What will AI mean for training & development?

Traditional training of new lawyers in law firms can be described as informal mentoring combined with throwing young associates into routine tasks such as document reviews. However, what happens when technology automates many of those routine tasks?

A 2022 study, the Litera Technology in M&A Report, looked at some of the impacts of AI-based tools on firms’ M&A practice. The survey’s respondents identified both positive and negative impacts of AI on the career development of young associates. On the one hand, most agreed that the use of AI in M&A deals is creating new career paths, and that freeing young associates from menial tasks gives them time to focus on their analytical and advisory skills. Almost as many respondents, however, thought that the use of AI-based tools in document review makes it harder for young lawyers to learn the craft because they don’t get the experience of identifying and extracting contract terms.

It’s an odd paradox that AI tools make legal work more efficient and accurate but might also make it harder for young lawyers to learn their craft. Josh Kubicki, Director of Legal Innovation & Entrepreneurship and Assistant Professor of Legal Practice at the University of Richmond, describes the problem as the removal of cognitive friction from the learning process. In a recent edition of his Brainyacts newsletter, which explores all things generative AI, Kubicki described cognitive friction as “the mental effort, challenges, or obstacles encountered when processing information, solving problems, or learning new tasks.” The struggles that young lawyers have when tossed into a sea of documents that need review, and the realization that they are in over their heads, is a source of that cognitive friction.

Dealing with cognitive friction in legal work provides pathways to learning. It’s a “valuable catalyst for growth, as it encourages critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills by pushing individuals to engage more deeply with the task at hand,” says Kubicki.

Yet, what happens to learning when AI takes the menial, routine, ambiguous, and complex out of a new lawyer’s day-to-day? Where will the learning come from?

Drawbacks of traditional training methods

“To teach associates, we’ve thrown them into the deep end of the pool, let them struggle, and maybe or maybe not, a partner or senior associate will catch them and help them figure things out,” says Kubicki. “But that’s incredibly uneven. It’s not managed properly. And it’s a heavily biased ecosystem.” Indeed, new AI tools may be taking away lawyers’ opportunities to learn by overcoming cognitive friction, but the old way was never applied consistently or effectively either.

lawyer training
Josh Kubicki

The answer, says Kubicki, is a more intentional approach to learning and development. “How can we manufacture cognitive friction in a controlled environment? Well, then you start looking at structured learning programs.” Such programs are more interactive, planned, and just-in-time. They move beyond the legal profession’s preferred model of sitting in a room watching someone narrate a PowerPoint deck, and instead they tie training to the work at hand and vary the pace, medium, and format.

And some firms are already putting that kind of intentionality into practice. However, it’s not just the training challenges presented by AI that are driving them there.

Other drivers of change in professional development

Interestingly, the growth of AI is not the only factor pushing law firms to take a closer look at how they train associates. The pandemic, and the technological accommodations that many law firms had to make to enable remote work, have also had a big impact. In addition, law firms are increasingly influenced by trends and research in learning and development outside of the legal industry.

When the pandemic struck, law firms that were dependent on the older model of in-person mentoring and classroom-based training were suddenly forced to leverage collaboration technology and establish new hybrid working models, in which it was no longer a given that person-to-person training or mentoring would always be possible.

Hybrid work limited spontaneous learning and created uneven experiences for live training sessions in which some lawyers attended in-person, but others only viewed remotely. This also made it more difficult for associates to build social relationships with peers and leaders who were traditional sources of training and mentorship.

Even before the pandemic forced the issue, however, many organizations outside the legal profession were already re-examining their learning and development efforts. Recognizing the importance of training in employee satisfaction and retention, a number of new techniques had become commonplace, including:

      • Continuous learning, a focus on embedding learning throughout an employee’s experience.
      • Blended learning, where classroom-style learning gives way to training that combines some online portions, which users can access at their convenience, as well as in-person experiences.
      • Gamification has become more common, with competition and rewards built into the training.
      • Increased use of technology to create more engaging and interactive online learning tools that go beyond simply transmitting a canned curriculum of information.
      • Emphasis on soft skills training, including critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.

Similar to organizations outside the legal industry, law firms are starting to professionalize the management of their learning activities. Firms have created Directors of Learning & Development and similar roles to better adopt these and other techniques, and they are taking a more strategic view of lawyer training that recognizes its role in building value within the firm.

In the second part of this series, we will look at some of the specific techniques that law firms are using in response to these trends.

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