Balancing AI and human connection: Practical insights from the Australian legal industry

The Draftable team share their key takeaways from the 2024 Legal Innovation & Tech Fest, with practical tips on leveraging both AI technology and human strengths for greater professional practice and personal wellbeing.

May 28, 2024
AI & humans: Practical insights from the legal industry

Draftable Legal Product Lead, Dr Caspar Roxburgh, and Product Specialist, Yulia Gosper, reflect on their learnings from Legal Innovation & Tech Fest held in Sydney on 13-14 May 2024, and share key takeaways and practical tips for law firms and legal teams.

One year ago, ChatGPT was newly released, and the AI tech race was heating up in the legal industry. There was much excitement and uncertainty around the possibilities of AI and whether the tech would displace lawyers.

This year at Legal Innovation & Tech Fest, the tone was markedly different. The discussion had shifted to a more practical exploration of AI’s applications in the legal industry. Lawyers were less concerned with whether AI would disrupt their jobs and more focused on how to reap the benefits of this technology. There was also a major spotlight on how to leverage the uniquely human traits that AI cannot replicate.

AI is impressive – but it’s not replacing lawyers yet

Nick Abrahams, Global Co-leader of Digital Transformation at Norton Rose Fulbright, kicked off the conference with his keynote on “Survival Strategies for Lawyers Navigating the AI Revolution”.

He pointed out that the threat of technological displacement loomed over lawyers long before the arrival of AI. You can find sources from decades ago analysing how technology will significantly reduce the need for human lawyers, such as the 2008 book "The End of Lawyers?" by Richard Susskind.

Yet lawyers are still here and will continue to outlast the technological transformation by focusing on uniquely human skills such as critical thinking, complex problem-solving, and interpersonal communication.

Nick said firms should focus on leveraging the strengths of AI, including data processing and automating routine tasks, to free up time for lawyers to do more high-value work such as building client relationships through empathy and emotional intelligence.

The session set the tone for the rest of the conference, with many sessions discussing the benefits, risks and challenges in adopting AI technology, along with exploring how human strengths can be leveraged for greater professional practice and personal wellbeing.

We’ll share our learnings from the tech-specific and human-focused sessions we attended and provide practical tips for balancing both.

Using AI in law firms

We know AI has impressive capabilities and potential. Law firms are now looking for more practical guidance on using AI responsibly and effectively to enhance their practice.

Choosing the right AI solutions for your firm

With dozens of different AI tools on the market, it can be challenging to find the right solution. A panel by Jennifer Cathcart, APAC Regional Manager at NetDocuments, Caryn Sandler, Partner and Chief Knowledge & Innovation Officer at Gilbert + Tobin, and Michael Barrett, Head of Technology & Innovation at Hicksons Lawyers, identified the key criteria for selecting AI solutions including strong client data privacy and security protocols, user-friendliness, and ease of integration.

Fiona McLay, Consultant at McLay Legal Consulting, delivered a session on her 12 steps to guide tech-avoiders to digital enlightenment, and shared some of her key takeaways from the conference in a LinkedIn video. Fiona discussed the importance of experimenting with multiple AI tools rather than focusing on one too early. She cautions that generative AI tools may not always be the optimal solution to your pain point or need, so don’t overestimate existing tools at this stage. Another approach is to leverage existing tools with built-in AI features, as familiarity with the underlying software can make it easier to learn how to use AI capabilities.

Fiona also highlighted the significant time investment required for data governance when adopting AI technologies. Training and upskilling in prompt engineering and AI usage is a continuous process that demands ongoing effort. “Everybody can learn - you don’t need to know how to code - but you do need to upskill and invest the time in learning how to use these tools effectively,” says Fiona.

Specific use cases for AI

In his presentation on ‘Using AI in legal document workflows’, Caspar delved deeper into practical applications, showing how to use AI to automate legal document workflows through real-world examples. He also discussed the risks and challenges in adopting AI compared with traditional software in the context of legal practice. For example, users must view AI outputs as ‘guidance’ or a starting point, rather than the definitive answers we expect from traditional software. It’s also essential to implement AI review practices that account for the downside consequences if specific ‘guidance’ turns out to be incorrect.

Allens CIO, Bill Tanner, presented a case study on how the firm deployed a custom Large Language Model (LLM) via Microsoft Azure, demonstrating how custom solutions can be implemented even without a dedicated AI team.

After learning how to select and apply AI solutions in specific scenarios, the Morae-sponsored breakfast provided a framework for evaluating AI use cases at various stages of implementation, encouraging attendees to think critically about what is important for their specific needs. As part of the discussions, some firms shared how they’d improved billing processes with AI technology, while many firms said there was still an overwhelming need for contract review automation across many practice areas.

Fostering human strengths

As Nick Abrahams outlined, you can’t have AI without people. The sessions around AI adoption were balanced with discussions on the critical human element of legal practice and the importance of human connection.

Using empathy to ask better questions

Kirk Docker, Director of ‘You Can’t Ask That', presented a keynote on how to ask better questions, which is fundamental for meaningful conversations. He talked about how to express empathy, connect with people, and ask tough questions, particularly pertinent for lawyers.

Kirk demonstrated these skills by interviewing our very own Yulia and asking hard-hitting questions. He started with his usual warm-up question, “What is something that people usually get wrong about you?” and moved on to some questions suggested by the audience including “What do you hide behind when you say you’re too busy?” and “How are you, really?” We’ve now got a great bank of questions to help us connect more deeply with people and have more interesting conversations.  

The physiology of human connection

The keynote by Dr Sarah McKay, Neuroscientist & Director of The Neuroscience Academy provided fascinating insights on human connection. While empathy is generally considered a uniquely human trait, Dr McKay shared a JAMA study comparing the responses of physicians and AI chatbots to patient questions. The study found that patients rated the AI chatbot’s responses as more empathetic than those from real doctors. Given the prevalence of burnout and compassion fatigue in the legal industry, our takeaway is that AI could help alleviate some of the emotional burden by drafting client responses when lawyers are overstretched.

However, human connection goes far beyond talking; it’s deeply physiological. Dr McKay shared how a significant part of our interactions is nonverbal, including smell and eye contact. When we meet in person, our heart rates and breathing can synchronise, while gestures such as a side glance, can foster credibility, trust, and deeper connections.

This raised an interesting question on how to build such connections in a remote work environment. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to replicate these nuanced human interactions virtually. With technology facilitating remote work and minimising face-to-face contact in the workplace and with clients, it’s important for employers to provide opportunities for employees to meet in person where possible, to help build trust and foster a cohesive team environment.

Applying love languages to law firms

A favourite of ours was the session on business love languages provided some practical tips on fostering human connection, even in a remote or hybrid work setting.

Kate Sherburn, Head of Legal at Who Gives A Crap and Elisabeth Flett, General Counsel & Company Secretary at Cancer Council showed us how to apply Gary Chapman’s love languages framework to a business environment. For example, words of affirmation in the business context could apply to how people like to receive recognition, such as through a private handwritten note, or public acknowledgement.

By understanding and embracing different business love languages, we can create a collaborative environment where team members feel more valued and connected. We’ll be taking some time to figure out our team’s unique love languages!

5 key takeaways and practical tips

The overall takeaway from the conference was that while law firms can enhance efficiency in their practice by safely leveraging AI technology, they should equally foster the human strengths and connection that are vital to the profession and personal wellbeing. Here are some practical tips to leverage both:

1. Reinvest time saved into human connection

Lawyers are saving time with AI tools but having fewer human interactions. For example, lawyers can now provide clients with portals where they can input information and receive quick, accurate results. It’s fast, but there’s no connection.

Since it’s the uniquely human traits like empathy and critical thinking that will ensure lawyers remain indispensable, it’s important to strengthen these skills. Lawyers who can balance both tech adoption and emotional intelligence will have the biggest advantage in the field.

Get the best of both worlds by reinvesting the saved time into face-to-face meetings to build trust, understanding, and stronger client relationships, and nurture interpersonal skills. It will also help offset the personal impacts of remote work.  

2. Prioritise data privacy and security

Ensuring client data privacy and security is paramount. When considering AI solutions for your law firms, always thoroughly assess compliance with data privacy regulations and data privacy and security protocols.

You can learn more about the types of security assessment questions you should be asking tech vendors here: 10 security questions you should be asking your legal tech vendors

Read more about privacy law compliance in Legal IT Insider: Every legal professional needs to know about privacy law compliance – Here’s where to start

3. Understand the risks of AI and set guardrails

As Caspar discussed, AI in its essence is different to traditional software and most tools are still highly prone to errors. For example, ChatGPT will make mistakes and hallucinate false information, so a human must thoroughly review and edit anything produced by LLMs. Firms will need to establish policies that outline the responsible use of AI, including data privacy measures, ethical guidelines, and processes for human oversight. Ultimately, AI solutions are most efficient when you have the human in the chain to review and verify accuracy of the information and offset the risks of using AI-generated content.

4. Invest in training and education

In the near future, AI capabilities will be integrated into almost all tools used by law firms, and we can already see it happening with Microsoft’s CoPilot. As these tools become mainstream, law firms will need to invest in training and education of their staff, so their teams know how AI works, its potential and limitations.

As Allens demonstrated, you don’t always need a dedicated AI to implement solutions, so start by investing in your current team. You can ease into it with smaller pilot projects and user-friendly AI solutions that integrate with your current software and offer training support.

5. Learn how to connect with your team

Technology enables us to work and communicate with people all over the world, however, truly effective teamwork remains rooted in understanding and respecting each emotional needs – something that technology simply cannot replicate. If you want to build strong, connected teams at your law firm, even in a remote work setting, consider exploring the concept of love languages in business contexts.

Whether it’s understanding individual communication styles or preferred forms of recognition, this helps to create a supportive and collaborative team environment. We spend at least a third of our time with clients and colleagues, so it’s important to make it count.

AI is truly remarkable - but there’s no substitute for real human connection.