Advances in generative artificial intelligence, or GenAI, have the potential to disrupt the practice of law for many, many lawyers — especially junior lawyers. A 2023 Thomson Reuters report on the impact of AI on lawyers forecasts an “immense” impact on junior lawyers. This blog has recently reported on an AI tool that can draft a complaint using factual inputs. In the face of the likely decrease in work such as due diligence review and drafting of routine documents that will result from the rapid adoption and increasing efficacy of AI, particularly generative AI, how can lawyers maintain and grow their careers? The answer is both simple and daunting: embrace change, level up your practice to adapt to the change, and, most importantly, listen to your clients, so that you can provide the services they want delivered the way they want them. 

The warning bells heralding the robot apocalypse have been sounded before, yet in the past 25 years, technical advances have not had a sustained negative impact on attorney hiring. This time, however, appears to be different. Earlier legal tech sped and eased processes like document review and due diligence, primarily impacting the work of legal and administrative assistants. Lawyers could look at the data generated in part by tech tools, and use them to craft their output. Now, though, technology can generate and craft that output. At this moment, the quality of tech-generated output is inconsistent, and occasionally plain wrong, but machine learning is a process, and every day the tech gets better at its job (and consequently at your job). ChatGPT has existed for less than two years, and law firms started using their own proprietary chatbots mere months ago. In less than 18 months, the way we practice has radically changed. Now envision what changes are likely with another 18 months of development.

Before starting this article, I asked ChatGPT, “What attorney tasks can ChatGPT take over?” It gave me a long list that included, in part, research, client communication, and the drafting of contracts, memoranda, briefs, and other documents. Even more concerning, the list included analyzing and evaluating case law and “providing insight into potential legal strategies.” Unsurprisingly, the initial responses of many lawyers to a list like this are skepticism and denial, when survival requires acceptance and adaptation.

Still, we have done this before. Online legal research tools disrupted the library, and law firms and lawyers adapted. Sophisticated e-discovery tools disrupted contract document review, and law firms and lawyers adapted. While different, the pandemic disrupted in-person meetings, hearings, and depositions, and through technology, law firms and lawyers adapted.

That said, simply embracing the technology, while otherwise continuing to practice law the way it has been done for the last century, will lead to obsolescence and possibly to unemployment almost as quickly as will denial. The much more significant step is identifying how we use the time that we have freed up to provide better support and counsel to our clients, and to train our new lawyers at a time when their needs are also changing in relation to advances in technology.

But mastering a changing practice is only part of the challenge. The considerations in every transaction, large or small, and the day-to-day considerations of running a functional commercial entity change with every technical advance and every change in the legal and regulatory environment around technology. Each of those considerations are made more complex by a patchwork of laws and regulations that differ wildly from country to country, and in the United States, from state to state. Lawyers do not need to become technologists or regulators, but they do need to master the subject matter they are advising on and the legal landscape around that subject matter, to guide clients on how to ethically, wisely, profitably, and legally manage their legal and business issues.

Rapidly changing technology raises a myriad of client issues that impact commercial lawyers in nearly every practice area. Mastery of those issues takes deep study, often academic study, since there is no settled law to look to. Even if you do not aspire to work in technology transactions, data privacy and innovation, blockchain, or other “tech law” practices, most lawyers must gain expertise in technology law and regulation to advise their clients well. Every client is a tech client now. Regardless of their industry, clients will have questions about how to protect their corporate information when using generative AI or advanced data analytics, how to balance employee privacy rights when using emerging AI employment tools, or how to evaluate the risk of deploying a new customer service chatbot. Every lawyer whose clients collect information must advise on steps that must be taken to keep that information safe and keep website visitors informed. Those are just a few examples, among hundreds, of why specialized tech knowledge is necessary to maintain excellence and relevance as a lawyer.

Finally, staying necessary now requires that lawyers understand how business is being done, and what clients need from their lawyers, both in-house counsel and lawyers at outside firms. Lawyers in the early part of the 20th century, and even earlier, often acted as advisors to clients in all aspects of their business. Though some lawyers still practice that way, specialization has taken over, and most lawyers are expected to only consider issues within their specialties or subspecialties. Though this article has focused on modernity, in this respect, in this new economy everything old is new again. Most businesses — not only startups or tech companies — want lawyers who understand the many business and legal issues their company faces.

Filling that role requires all the technical and legal knowledge discussed earlier in this article, but it also requires a shift in how we define the role of a lawyer, from discrete problem-solver to fundamental business advisor. The lawyer needs the knowledge and training to ask the right questions, to assess the situation, and to identify what legal and regulatory risks are present with each possible solution, in the context of the client’s specific business and operations. This means not just understanding what the company does, but also what people in the development and business units do. While it is up to the client to decide what risks to accept and what ventures and opportunities to pursue as they innovate, when they see that you understand their goals and actions, that you are listening, you will have built a relationship that allows you and them to advance shared goals.

All these pivots require reconsideration and recasting of what makes an effective and necessary lawyer. It also requires a lot of (non-billable) study and work — and for some, retraining and immersion in a tech-focused environment where they can learn what technologists and business professionals now need from their lawyers. For example, at Cornell Tech’s Master of Laws program in Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship, our Tech LLM students work on teams side by side with MBA and tech master’s students. They hear the perspectives of the people whose work will be impacted by the work of lawyers. In this way, Cornell Tech lawyers learn what clients want, and what causes frustration and chills innovation. That knowledge is a foundation from which lawyers can identify what clients need and want to know, and how to provide that information and help clients craft modern solutions.

Few lawyers have the urge to become coders or product managers, but by walking a mile in the shoes of technologists and business professionals, Cornell Tech lawyers understand their clients’ products and their businesses, and can offer the services clients need. And for those who do want to deepen their understanding of or even develop legal technology solutions, an entrepreneurial and innovative environment like Cornell Tech can offer that opportunity as well. Whatever path you choose to adapt to the changing legal environment, taking the step to address it head-on offers an exciting opportunity to be at the very edge of what is now — and what is next. You can learn more about Cornell Tech and Cornell Law School’s Tech LLM here.