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Legal Technology

Practicing Law in the Age of AI

By Curt Brown

There’s nothing like an existential threat to get the competitive juices flowing. Curt Brown, co-founder of Overture Law, says if you’re really worried about AI’s impact on law practice, now is the time to make moves.

Impact of AI on Law Practice

Like many of you, I get dozens of emails a day talking about the impact of AI on law practice. Every feed is inundated with article after article about how AI is going take everyone’s job and how the legal industry is next.

Candidly, I’m embarrassed to throw one more article in the queue of your already crowded newsfeed, but I think there’s a little perspective that’s missing from the doomer headlines pushed on mine. 

We Needed This Punch to the Gut

Why does our industry need figurative violence? Because there’s nothing like an existential threat to really get the competitive juices flowing. If a program can write a demand letter in a few seconds better than what you or I could do in a few hours (and we’re the ones billing for our time), we deserve to lose to the robot.

The question we should all be asking is, “What are we going to do about it?”

AI isn’t going away. Whether it’s been through outright prohibition or by litigating innovation out of existence, the legal profession has a pretty good track record of maintaining the status quo, particularly when the “threat” comes from outside the profession. So it’s understandable that for many attorneys, the instinctual response to the AI phenomenon is to either resist it or ignore it.

The problem is that this technology isn’t going away because clients — the people we serve — want it. They want AI to make their businesses and lives easier and better. It’s taking over so many other facets of business, life and trade, they’re certainly going to want it to reduce their interactions with a real-life lawyer.

And let’s face it, the populace has been looking for alternatives to lawyers for decades. Self-service legal products are a multibillion-dollar industry. The same technology that has made it easier for lawyers to conduct legal research and draft documents has made it easier for the public as well.

What Can You Do About It?

AI may be in its infancy, but the technology will continue to evolve and improve. Compare a cellphone from 2003 to one from 2023. For that matter, remember when Westlaw was on CDs? So, what should you do about AI’s impact on your law practice?

1. Simmer down.

In the short term, here’s some good news. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics still projects 10% growth in the legal industry over the next decade. The need for attorneys won’t go away — it’s how people use attorneys that will change.

2. Don’t knock it till you try it.

Next, you should try it out. Some of the products sound awesome. I suppose some lawyers really do enjoy document review and some of the more mundane aspects of practicing law (or maybe just the easy billables), but AI-enhanced drafting and document review will be game-changers for folks who want to deliver efficient legal services to clients.

To be frank, I wish the tech was there to make products more useful, but I just haven’t seen it (yet). At the current juncture, most of what I’ve seen has been similar to other legal tech “solutions” — there’s a very compelling sales pitch, but the product lacks substance after you sign the initial contract. (If you’re a legal tech company that disagrees with me, please contact me; I’d very much love to be wrong here.)

3. Optimize your practice.

I work with a lot of lawyers and it pains me to see how many opportunities for new and repeat business they let pass them by. You’ve probably already been lectured on these fundamentals ad nauseum but it bears repeating:

  • Be responsive.
  • Focus on closing.
  • Be better about responding to current and potential clients.
  • Send out engagement letters and payment links more quickly.

But the biggest missed revenue opportunity is referral fees.

4. Focus on building your referral fee network.

There isn’t a lawyer who hasn’t been asked about an area of law they don’t handle, or a matter in a state where they’re not licensed. If you haven’t done so, maybe it’s time to start viewing these as revenue opportunities rather than time-consuming calls to avoid. Every state permits referral fees or fee splitting in some form, whether it be pure referral fees or some variation on the ABA model rule. Yes, you read that right.

I’ve been doing this for a while, so I know half of you are likely thinking, “But aren’t referral fees illegal?” My answer is, “Yes if you mess it up.” Nonetheless, let’s start with some background from two jurisdictions with seemingly diametrically opposed regulatory philosophies, Texas and California:

Based upon numerous authorities and the copious amounts of testimony received during the public hearings, the Task Force concluded that in many instances (if not the vast majority), the payment of referral fees encourages lawyers who might not otherwise be qualified to handle a case to refer the clients to lawyers who do possess the requisite qualifications; is not viewed negatively by the clients who pay them; and, at least when accompanied by ethically appropriate post-referral behavior by the lawyers involved, is not unconscionable. Therefore, the Task Force concludes that, as long as they are subject to proper safeguards, referral fees do further the goals of our profession.

State Bar of Texas, Referral Fee Task Force: Final Report and Recommendations (2004) at 13 (emphasis added)

If the ultimate goal is to assure the best possible representation for a client, a forwarding fee is an economic incentive to less capable lawyers to seek out experienced specialists to handle a case. Thus, with marketplace forces at work, the specialist develops a continuing source of business, the client is benefited and the conscientious, but less experienced lawyer is subsidized to competently handle the cases he retains and to assure his continued search for referral of complex cases to the best lawyers in particular fields.

Moran v. Harris (1982) 131 Cal.App.3d 913, 921-922 (emphasis added)

While referral fees to non-lawyers are prohibited in every state, referral fees to attorneys are permitted as long as the attorneys follow certain standards and necessary client disclosures. Attorneys should take advantage of referral fees as one way to use their legal knowledge to grow their practice and help clients find the best possible representation.

Platforms that enable independent attorneys to share clients and fees in this fragmented, borderless world are going to be crucial for making up for lost revenue, or worse, waste valuable resources on ad spend with ever-increasing costs per sign-up. Overture (shameless plug) was started precisely with this premise in mind. It’s an invite-only referral platform that lets attorneys refer, track and ethically share fees.

Now Is the Time to Make Moves

Is AI going to steal your lunch? Maybe. Probably. That’s up to you.

But if you’re really worried about AI’s impact, figure out how to use it to your advantage.

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curt brown Curt Brown

Curt Brown is Co-Founder and Chief of Legal Innovation at Overture Law, where he also serves as General Counsel. In 2023, Curt was named a Rising Star by Super Lawyers. He has also been recognized as a California Lawyer of the Year (CLAY Award) by The Daily Journal and Pro Bono Attorney of the Year by the USC Law School Public Interest Law Fund. Curt is a founding partner of L&F Brown, P.C. and Chief Legal Officer of BizCounsel, Inc., which provides subscription legal plans to small and growing businesses.

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