My 2018 prediction for the legal market is as much edict as prediction: lawyers must change how they work.

[A similar version of this prediction was published on 15 December 2017 at the Aderant blog, Think Tank: 20+ Legal Tech and Business of Law Predictions for 2018 – Part 1.]

Competition among large law firms will keep heating up. Why? Corporate demand for legal services continues to grow yet law firm share keeps shrinking. Clients meet the growing demand by hiring more lawyers and sending work to alternative service providers. In-house hiring may have peaked (recent surveys go both ways on this) but the Big 4 and smaller law firms are alternatives with room to grow. Flat demand means robust competition and price pressure.

To succeed, large firms must battle for market share while taking steps to protect profits. The best way to do both is by improving value and service. More value and better service means lawyers and firms must change how they work. Anything else is just window dressing.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and law firm innovation initiatives promise big change but the immediate impact appears limited. Proven legal AI uses cases are limited. In 2017, we saw machine learning tools for due diligence and data analytics and AI for legal research go mainstream. Advanced text analytics for e-discovery document review went mainstream years ago. It’s not obvious that there a break-out use of AI beyond these. Smart firms will continue, however, to explore AI potential and stay current with developments.

Ah, innovation. We seem to be in a large law firm innovation arms war. But if innovation does not change how lawyers work, what’s its value? And it’s not clear how much it has changed lawyer work to date. But innovation always takes time to translate to real change.

I expect to see firms of all sizes continue to tout their innovation initiatives in 2018. And I am optimistic that some will begin to change how lawyers work. How much they change will be the measure of success. Look for reduced  labor effort required to deliver advice, improved legal outcomes, or better client service. (Hmm, we may need metrics here.)

Beyond AI and innovation, many approaches with less PR sizzle arguably have more impact short term. Specifically, firms can do more and better knowledge management (KM), legal project management (LPM), practice technologies, and process improvement. In my consulting, I saw more firms in 2017, even some in the top 20, invest in all of these. I expect that trend to accelerate in 2018. It may be less sexy than AI or innovation, but done right, we know all these techniques can deliver value to clients quickly. These techniques too, however, require that lawyers change how they work.

So may main point is as much hope as prediction: I expect those firms feeling the pressure the most to focus on changing how their lawyers work with both old and new approaches in 2018.

2018 Legal Market Predictions