AI and the GC: Navigating a New Era of Partnership as a Legal Leader

Varun Mehta
February 26, 2024

The GenAI boom hit the legal industry in 2023 and quickly became the focus of every conference, meeting and email thread. Inboxes were flooded with hot takes on the realm of possibilities opened by the latest feature updates, while AI-enthused industry presentations capitalized on the momentum.

Amid the AI gold rush, a cacophony of emotions surfaced: fear, excitement, anxiety, FOMO ... all while trying to keep pace with each new advancement. For a topic viewed as tech-centric, AI is highly evocative, sparking strong opinions and emotions that can complicate attempts to develop an understanding at baseline or optimistically attempt to build and deploy a strategy.

Notwithstanding the commotion around GenAI, GCs are still grappling with some age-old problems: most law departments are under-resourced and juggling multiple priorities; most have not found tremendous impact leveraging the variety of legal tech tools on the market; and burnout and mental health issues are weighing teams down.

While 70% of law departments report an increase in matter volume, 66% report flat or decreasing budgets (Thomas Reuters Legal Department Operations Index 2023). On the tech side, 72% see using technology to simplify workflow as a high priority, yet 90% say their department makes only slow to moderate progress in adopting new tech.

Before GCs can unlock GenAI’s potential, they need to orient themselves with the current landscape, apply their well-practiced critical reasoning skills, and take a thoughtful approach to the human impact.

Here are a few key steps I recommend to GCs navigating the age of AI.

Imagine the possibilities... but anchor them to your legal strategy

Let’s not forget, GenAI is still in the early innings. Although the technology is currently more advanced than it has ever been, it is also the least sophisticated it will ever be.

And while GenAI is evolving to be more intuitive and empathetic, bridging the gap between tech and human emotions in a way imagined only in science fiction, the capabilities of GenAI have not plateaued – not even close. The very nature of this technology means that it will evolve in sync with the world around it.

The potential of GenAI offers a more human-centric approach to how we interact with technology. So, as you expand your vision for the role of AI on your team, bear in mind that this is only the beginning; stay open to new possibilities.

Not a tool to buy but a capability to learn

Chief Justice John Roberts said, “Language is the central tool of our trade.” That simple statement holds the crux of GenAI’s power for legal teams.

Past waves of legal tech over-promised and under-delivered for the simple reason that they weren't built for language-centric functions like legal. Attempts at digital transformation have resulted in the biggest in-house budgets for legal technology in history, but the promise of these solutions remains unfulfilled, with only 27 percent of corporate employees reporting that they view their legal function as a good business partner (2023 Enterprise Legal Reputation Report).

Previous technologies relied on processing of logic; GenAI relies on large language models, meaning it is purpose built to tackle the kinds of tasks that legal teams face every day in a highly sophisticated way.

Maybe you've been disappointed by legal tech in the past, or you've had success applying older technologies to siloed outputs, either way, GenAI requires a fundamental perspective shift.

This tech can't be limited to just accelerating, automating and enhancing productivity — its real power lies in generating new, elevated, novel output through comprehension of vast amounts of information available to it. After all, GenAI is, indeed, generative: it's creative, it's inventive and it doesn't provide the exact same answer twice.

So, clear away any preconceptions about legal tech and understand that these are uncharted waters, because legal leaders that approach GenAI as an in-tune colleague, a trainer and a collaborator stand to gain the most from this opportunity.

Take a human-centric approach

There is no question that GenAI's use cases in legal are plenty. The question is: have you considered the impact that implementing AI will have on your legal team?

Successful integration of GenAI is contingent on the preparedness of the individuals to cooperate with intelligent virtual teammates. If teams are uneasy about what GenAI could mean for their job security or have any other reservations, then you won't be able to capitalize on the full potential of this opportunity.

Remember: as sophisticated as GenAI is today, it will only get better from here. There's no need to take a tech-led approach because a view into any given product's deficiencies is a fleeting one. Instead, invest your energy in developing a human-centric strategy that empowers your team to embrace AI as a strategic enabler and a value-add team member.

With intense emotional forces to navigate and overcome, it's tempting to stay on the sidelines when it comes to facing one of the most impactful industry disruptors. But GenAI is here to stay, our businesses are going to use it full stop, so understanding what it is and how it works will not be optional.

So, if we are forced to understand and learn, why not embrace the opportunity to really improve the quality and impact our work has?

Ultimately, every legal team's best use of GenAI depends on the individual team members. How can we elevate the lawyers in our departments to be better business partners, risk managers and impactful strategists? Focus on enabling your team to best collaborate with AI and you'll find yourself on the cutting edge of innovation in a transformative moment for the legal industry.

As the buzz around GenAI crescendos into pure noise, it can be difficult for GCs to establish a clear path forward. Don't act on emotion, but don't stand still — this is a critical moment for forward-thinking legal leaders. Focus on your people, take that first step toward partnering with AI and help evolve the legal industry.

This article was originally published on Westlaw Today on February 23, 2024.