The law firm of the future

The law firm of the future

AI will transform the law, and we’re only beginning to grasp its full potential. Womble Bond Dickinson is one firm on the case – we spoke to a few of their experts about its impact on the whole profession.


The rise of artificial intelligence is a hotly debated topic in the legal world. What is its potential? What are its limits? How will the law itself need to adapt if more work is done by computers? One law firm that’s harnessing AI and other technological innovation is transatlantic firm Womble Bond Dickinson. We chatted to partners and trainees about the firm’s innovation programme to reveal what other law firms could learn.

“One of the first things we realised when Bond Dickinson and Womble Carlyle combined was that we are very similar in our approach to embedding innovation in our practice,” explains Newcastle-based partner Nigel Emmerson. Nigel joined forces with Liz Riley, who is based in Raleigh in the US to head up innovation groups on both sides of the Atlantic. The firm has held two ‘Innovation Weeks’ so far, the objectives of which are “to embed the culture of innovation, encourage people to come forward with innovative ideas, have some fun and increase and improve the integration of the two firms.” Liz Riley tells us: “Some of the most helpful things to come out of innovation sessions are the energy and ideas young lawyers bring that are specific to their generation. That’s the purest form of innovation and we need that inspiration to change the way we work.”

“Some of the most helpful things to come out of innovation sessions are the energy and ideas young lawyers bring that are specific to their generation."

“We’re already using AI in document assembly,” WBD trainees told us, “particularly in our insolvency practice. One of the managing associates has been at the forefront of developing a suite of software that uses a decision making tree that answers 20 questions and produces a full set of papers for putting a company into administration.”

books<------- Less of this please, thanks.

To get you up to speed on what the firm’s software can currently do day-to-day: there are three main programs being used by WBD for legal tasks. The first is called Exari: a document assembly platform which is particularly handy in banking and regulatory departments. The second is a program called Kira, which essentially performs due diligence tasks at a fraction of the time. Last is High Q, a cloud-based data room facility that enables collaboration between multiple offices and clients. Trainees explained: “We use High Q for data rooms but we’ve also programmed it so that the client can interact with it and produce reports that are easy for them to interpret.” Partner Liz Riley also notes that: “On the litigation side the power of AI is in the data yield and the trends they reveal. It’s a whole new way of creating arguments and even finding new evidence.” Sammie Bryant, trainee organiser of WBD’s Innovation Week tells us: “The emphasis here is on reducing waste, increasing value and managing risk. Clients’ needs are always adapting and we’re offering solutions to those demands.”

“The emphasis here is on reducing waste, increasing value and managing risk.”

Many of our readers will know that tasks like due diligence and managing data rooms are an inevitable part of a typical training contract, so what will it mean for trainees if computers are doing this type of work? Nigel Emmerson predicts that new AI programs will “take out the drudgery and tedious elements” of the average lawyer’s workload. He adds: “People will get more enjoyment out of the job rather than having to read through thousands of papers. If you can get a computer to do the reading and then apply your own experience to look at reports and produce further information it makes it much more interesting.” WBD trainee and co-organiser of Innovation week Lee Davis reckons: “These technologies speed up processes and make life easier rather than removing the need for junior input. In a few years’ time I think it’ll mean there’ll be more scope for niche, interesting work for trainees instead of standard document review.”

“These technologies speed up processes and make life easier rather than removing the need for junior input.”

It looks like trainees and junior lawyers won’t be being replaced by machines any time soon (phew!), but that doesn’t mean roles won’t have to adapt. Nigel Emmerson explains: “The lawyer of the future will need supplementary skills if black letter law is being done by IT.” These include “coding skills to manipulate the technology to do what we want, project management and being able to interpret the information to make it accessible to clients.” Sammie Bryant agrees: “There has been discussion about trainees being able to code and an increased emphasis on having good grades in IT when it comes to recruitment.” WBD is already thinking about ways to incorporate these skills into its training contract, as Nigel Emmerson explains: “In the UK a number of trainees suggested that they’d like one of their non-obligatory seats to be replaced with a technology seat or a project management seat. That’s something we’re considering and the trainees I’ve spoken to are really excited about that idea.”

coding<---- How we imagine the lawyers of the future will look. 

WBD recently launched ‘WBD Advance,’ bringing together a team of over 100 lawyers, project managers and data analysts who come up with solutions to clients’ problems by “providing the technology and business services clients are demanding, as well as legal services,” Lee Davis reveals. These services include support for the type of high-volume projects mentioned earlier: things like document review, data analysis and management and process design. This means more opportunities for secondments for trainees and junior associates, Sammie Bryant tells us: “The firm sends seconded lawyers to clients’ offices to cover gaps and offer scalable, affordable services.” Supporting all of the WBD Advance services is the Legal Solutions Centre formed of around 70 paralegals, legal executives, lawyers, project managers, technologists and client coordinators who provide flexible resourcing and a more cost-effective solution for everyday work like due diligence. “By using flexible resourcing and a multidisciplinary team we’re able to meet the diverse needs that clients have, and to do so cost effectively," Sammie Bryant explains.

“Even if you’re not actively billing hours it’s beneficial mentally to maintain some continuity with your colleagues and it really helps you transition back into working.”

Paperless technology increases the scope for flexible working. Lee Davis tells us: “A lot of my peers say there’s no scope for flexibility at other firms and that it’s very focused on seniority, but that’s not the case here.” Bryant agrees: “In a lot of teams all you need is a laptop so you can plug in from home in the evening or have a more flexible schedule, which can only be a good thing.” Nigel Emmerson notes that: “You can’t leave your work at the office in the same way you used to be able to do, so your work and home life can become less separated.” However, Liz Riley explains: “Anybody who needs flexible work arrangements can benefit from the ability to stay connected outside of the office. Even if you’re not actively billing hours it’s beneficial mentally to maintain some continuity with your colleagues and it really helps you transition back into working. I’ve known a number of young men and women who have leveraged their ability to be mobile lawyers and people are growing to expect that. We like to ensure people have the arrangements they need to be excellent attorneys." Despite this, Nigel Emmerson adds: “It’s still important to make sure that people get to know each other in person too, and we recognise we need to facilitate that.”

New technologies have also enabled WBD to enjoy the benefits of its new global network. Nigel Emmerson explains: “We’re less tied to geography now. Our residential team has members across all regions and works seamlessly on transactions, even when we’re working on joint clients with the US. AI will only help that because everything will be much quicker.” Liz Riley adds: “The hardest thing about it is remembering what time it is when I’m speaking to people in other countries!” Trainee Sammie Davis reckons: “These technologies will lead to productivity increases and increases in value – not just financial but in the scale of the work you’re doing, even at a junior level.”

See what a career looks like at Womble Bond Dickinson >>