February 23, 2024
Aspiring lawyers interested in the growth of artificial intelligence should consider its potential nuances on human workforces as well as its positive potential.

Context: Artificial Intelligence Becomes Increasingly Relevant

Over the course of the last few years (and especially since the release of ChatGPT in late 2022), artificial intelligence has become a huge part of the public consciousness. It appears to be the most relevant buzzword around at the moment – in every industry, across all walks of life, and amongst every community.

It has certainly had a significant impact in the legal industry, to start with. A number of law firms have adopted AI and implemented it in a variety of ways. For example, Allen & Overy (soon to be A&O Shearman following a merger with an elite US outfit), a Magic Circle law firm, have hit the headlines in the last few months due to the deployment of their legal AI chatbot ‘Harvey’. In this case, the firm were careful in their wording in regard to whether the chatbot could potentially replace some of its human workforce, stating that this will ‘empower more than 3,500 lawyers’ across their offices worldwide.

This is not the first time a firm has used AI in their day-to-day work, either – back in 2017 (well ahead of the curve), Latham & Watkins deployed a machine learning tool called Kira to lighten the document review load (a task that often falls on more junior lawyers, e.g. trainees).

Other areas of the law have also benefitted from AI. Judges themselves have openly admitted to using ChatGPT (see the recent case of LJ Birss, an IP specialist in the Court of Appeal, praising the tool). Across law firms and chambers (various legal organisations), AI has been utilised in a number of management contexts.

However, it is not just in the legal industry that AI is having a significant impact. A story coming out of the US this week suggests that the tech industry has been heavily affected by AI in a slightly more concerning way – mass redundancies.

Why are layoffs happening at tech firms?

According to layoffs.fyi (a tracker for this kind of data), 34,000 jobs have been axed just this year (that’s around a month and a half so far). This is made up of around 138 companies altogether.

Tech job cuts are nothing new -a huge wave of them occurred last year, when outfits like Meta and Google had massively over hired previously and so challenging market conditions put significant strains on their budgets. This latest round of cuts is reportedly more down to reconfiguring the workforce within these firms in order to optimise (think about the work that restructuring consultants and lawyers often do, for example) for AI.

This could mean, for instance, letting go of a small team of people whose job could now be replaced by a senior AI consultant who is able to develop systems to replace a small team (more cost efficient long-term). An increasing focus on AI could perhaps mean hiring just as many staff in that area – in short, it could be interesting to view this story as less about job cuts, and more of a reskilling issue.

It can be difficult to tell fact from fiction here, however. It generally looks better from a PR perspective for a company to say they are ‘reskilling’ their workers to streamline their company for the AI era than to admit that they over hired in the past and are now just looking for an excuse to cut excess staff costs in a difficult economy. The reality is often very difficult to discern in these circumstances. 


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Why should aspiring lawyers follow this story?

If you are considering a career as a solicitor or barrister in England and Wales, it has become increasingly obvious that you will need to interact with AI as part of your work going forwards. This could mean engaging with AI tools in your office (like the example of Harvey above – multiple firms, including Macfarlanes, are now adopting the same tool).

However, arguably the most interesting development will be the impact AI has on your practice as a lawyer in terms of the issues that fall to your desk. This story has a huge number of implications for a variety of different practice areas.

For example, consider an employment law perspective on this story. These tech firms are unlikely to be able to cut jobs on a whim – there will need to be redundancy packages in place, negotiations with different employees at different levels, etc. The idea of moving staff around in order to minimise costs is also something which restructuring and insolvency lawyers will be well-placed to advise on.

From another angle, you could take a commercial awareness-inspired view on this issue, which might be relevant to a practice area like M&A. If you’re advising a buyer of a tech company on an acquisition, staff headcounts (and future predictions of where those numbers will be going) are key factors that go into forecasting profitability in the future. 

This is not to mention the fact that most large tech companies today are international operations, and so those working in international law firms will likely have to consider the implications of these decisions occurring across different jurisdictions. It might be possible to fire some workers in the US, for example, but stronger labour laws might pose additional challenges to letting go of some of your client’s UK-based workforce.

All of these topics (and their relevancy to law firms and chambers in the context of their industries) are excellent topics to raise during the application process for opportunities such as vacation schemes, training contracts, or pupillage. These could form both part of your application form and, later, talking points at interviews.


In short, while AI has had a hugely beneficial impact on some industries (and aspects of society as a whole), the intelligent reader will attempt to look into some of the nuances, considering what impact this could have in other ways. For aspiring lawyers in particular, this could mean understanding the relevancy of AI-related developments on legal practice.


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