AI Won’t Replace Junior Associates—But It Will Impact Them


“Disrupt” is too weak a word to describe the impact of generative artificial intelligence on the legal industry; given these technologies are in their infancy, the pace of change is staggering, and the far-reaching impacts are not to be underestimated. However, even though doomsayers have proclaimed that AI will replace lawyers in private practice, with junior associates first on the chopping block, law firm attorneys, as a species, are not endangered. As the efficiencies of these tools become widely utilized by law firms, we can expect a shift in what junior associates do, how they are deployed and the qualities needed to succeed in those roles.


Large Language Models: Unreliable Tools and the Need for Human Oversight


The notion that AI will soon replace lawyers is contradicted by the way Large Language Models (LLMs) function and the output they produce. LLMs analyze large text datasets to learn language patterns and structures. This allows them to generate coherent and relevant text based on the input they receive. However, even if LLMs are trained on high-quality legal work product, the resulting responses often fall short of the promise of coherency and contextual relevance. The responses are often inaccurate, imprecise, or wholly made up. If these LLMs were people, they would seem overly accommodating and unnervingly eager. Without the proper prompts, the output can read as cheesy or flat.


While LLMs can take in massive amounts of data and quickly create language-based outputs at an unprecedented scale and speed, they lack the nuanced understanding, ethical reasoning, and contextual awareness inherent to experienced lawyers. Even as these tools proliferate, there is no replacement for the hard-earned human legal judgment required to oversee the end products properly. Human oversight ensures the LLM’s work product aligns with legal standards, ethical norms, local rules, and client-specific business priorities. Often, an LLM's output is a jumping-off point for lawyers to refine and elevate, applying human creativity, empathy, and instinct.


A Shorter On-Ramp to Meaningful Work


Yes, AI tools will supplant junior associates for many tasks — but don’t mourn the loss of these assignments. They are the most time-consuming and least interesting parts of a young attorney’s responsibilities.


Because these generative tools will handle the drudgery, junior associates will more quickly engage with meaningful, substantive work and have greater opportunities for training and mentorship with more seasoned colleagues. Traditionally, junior associates have spent extensive periods drowning in doc review, legal research, and due diligence. Without these burdens, associates can focus on more analytical, strategic roles, diving deeper into case strategy, client interactions, substantive negotiation, oral advocacy, and skill building. Utilizing these tools will reduce burnout and improve job satisfaction for those lawyers.


The Opportunity: Prompt Wizards Needed


To take advantage of the efficiencies made possible by LLMs, firms must develop a bench of lawyers adept in prompt engineering, the indispensable skillset of our age.  Junior and incoming law firm associates are well suited to seize the opportunity presented as the legal industry increasingly intertwines with advanced tech. As “prompt wizards” or “prompt whisperers,” these associates can craft precise queries that effectively harness AI's power, ensuring the technology delivers relevant and accurate responses. To wield the tools of AI, the user must understand what an appropriate outcome looks like – again, relying on experientially developed legal judgment. We are already seeing law firms recalibrate the skills they seek in summer and junior associates, placing higher value on technical fluency and, in some cases, even software engineering credentials.


Creative Destruction and the Threat to The Pyramid and Billable Hour Models


The economic theory of creative destruction, as posited by Joseph Schumpeter, offers a lens through which to view the impending AI-driven transformation within the legal industry. While traditional legal models, such as the Pyramid Structure or the Billable Hour Model, will face disruption, new opportunities for innovation and efficiency will emerge. Innovators will use AI to create new solutions for clients beyond our imagination. These solutions will provide better services and protect clients more effectively and at a lower cost. An inevitable part of the destruction is the potential for revitalization and new opportunities.


A good analogy is the realm of supply chain and logistics and the anticipated danger of the Internet. The initial upheaval brought on by the Internet’s widespread adoption presented an existential threat. Yet, this very challenge catalyzed an era of unprecedented innovation and adaptation within the sector. By embracing digital transformation, leveraging data analytics, and integrating sophisticated technologies like the Internet of Things, the industry discovered new avenues for growth and efficiency. Not to mention the vast new opportunities arising from an explosion of e-commerce for warehousing and last-mile delivery services. So, too, will it be with the legal industry if we meet the challenge with optimism and a willingness to experiment.



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