“Somebody is going to die.”
That was the dramatic opening to an Australian Financial Review article, which stated that lawyers were working ‘16 to 18-hour days, seven days a week’, and battling ‘crushing deadlines and … thousands of documents’. Richard Harris, a litigation partner at Gilbert + Tobin was quoted as saying: “If you are not running [the work] in split teams, you’d likely be killing people”.
What sort of work were these lawyers doing? Was it the type of adrenaline-pumping, high-stakes, strategic problem solving that we see in legal dramas such as ‘Suits’? No. Andrew Pike, of law firm Herbert Smith Freehills explained: “We have 30 to 40 people sitting in Ireland trawling through Australian bank documents”.
I was a litigation lawyer during the height of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. As such, I am familiar with the gruelling nature of trawling through high volumes of documents. Based on my experience, everyone worked hard but thankfully death was not even remotely a concern. Death, however, is not the only issue the article raises. Harris also expresses his concern about junior lawyers ‘getting burned out of the profession before they see something more sustainable’.
How can the legal profession address this problem? One option is to embrace technology that empowers lawyers to become ‘super lawyers’ by outputting more per hour without any decrease (and perhaps even an increase) in the quality of their work. People often tell me that law firms are incentivised against adopting such efficiencies because law firms charge by the hour, and fewer hours means less revenue.
The reality, however, is not that simple. The fact that a lawyer worked 16 hours on a given day does not mean that 16 hours of that lawyer’s time was billed by the firm. About 25% of a lawyer’s time, on average, is written off. Suppose, for example, that a lawyer performs 12 hours of legal work on a given day, but additionally spends 4 hours ‘trawling through Australian bank documents’ trying to find one or two key pieces of information. It is likely that those 4 hours are going to be written off, because no client is going to accept paying thousands of dollars for finding a document or two.
This is where solutions such as Aerofiler can assist. We’ve had clients upload in excess of 10,000 documents to our system and they can find exactly what they want in just a few seconds with a few keywords. We have already built what we think (and more importantly what our customers think) is a best-in-breed search solution. But we’re not resting there, and we spend every day improving not just our search, but the whole suite of features which makes Aerofiler a must-have for any business struggling with contract or document management.
Returning to our poor junior lawyer, a technology solution represents a win for them because a 16 hour day becomes a 12 hour day. It’s also a win for the law firm because they do not lose revenue from billable hours and they get to keep talented junior staff rather than seeing them burn out and move to a different firm, or perhaps even a different career. It’s a win for the client because lawyers get to focus all their attention on grappling with complicated legal and strategic issues, rather than unnecessarily fatiguing themselves by spending hours doing document searches and other repetitive and mechanical tasks.
I’ve focused here on law firm work because that is where I have practised law. The same types of issues, however, arise with in-house legal work. No in-house lawyer, for example, relishes the task of going through hundreds of leases and manually recording whether rent review is based on fixed percentage, consumer price index, or market rent. When people have put themselves through years of law school, that is not the type of work they want to be doing for days or weeks on end. And when many in-house departments are leanly- or under-staffed, the problem is compounded. With a properly designed system, that type of task should only take minutes.
The legal profession is not known for its early adoption of technology. The movement to eliminate drudgery from law will therefore not be instant. But we do believe it is inevitable, and would welcome the opportunity to help you on the journey. In the meantime, we hope that reports of possible death are greatly exaggerated. We know that reports of super lawyers are not.