[Ed. Note: Please welcome Guest-Blogger, Matt Coatney as he gives us some insight on how to deal with the smart machines and AI technologies coming our way.]

Much has been said about how technology will disrupt the legal profession and spell the end of lawyers. From Richard Susskind’s End of Lawyers? to IBM Watson, the future does not look bright for those that practice law. Even experts originally optimistic about the technology boom are now more cautious based on new data. With all the doom and gloom, is there anything lawyers can do to at least postpone the inevitable?

A recent HBR article titled Beyond Automation argues that instead of bemoaning automation, we should focus on augmentation: people and smart machines working together. The authors lay out five strategies people can use to not only stay relevant but thrive in areas where advanced technology threatens to replace them. Here are the strategies and how they apply to lawyers.

1. Step Up

Stepping up in the context of smart machines means to stay ahead of them in terms of quality and sophistication. If technology will one day handle all of our mundane legal work – research, document drafting, and the like – then lawyers can focus more of their attention on business development, running their practice, and handling increasingly complex issues. In other words, lawyers should continue to push down work, but technology will handle more of the associate-level tasks.

What to do: Lawyers need to broaden their skills beyond a firm grasp of the law. They should pursue classes and continuing education in areas like business, marketing and technology. Law schools need to offer and require a more diverse program of classes, and law firms need to make this type of professional development a priority.

2. Step Aside

Smart machines are getting smarter, but for now they do not possess a nuanced understanding of human emotion and creativity (hold the lawyer jokes, please). Stepping aside means leveraging more of our creative, non-analytical thinking. Some areas will remain the purview of people for awhile at least. Take jury trials. Advanced technology will soon take over the role of jury selection by combining big data and predictive analytics. But lawyers will still be needed during the trial, as the complex interplay of judge, witnesses, and jurors requires someone who can relate with people, pick up subtle emotional cues, and control the situation.

What to do: Lawyers should focus on the human aspect of the law, where smart machines cannot compete. Lawyers, schools and firms need to focus education and growth in areas like emotional intelligence to stay competitive.

3. Step In

I have seen people accomplish amazing things working with smart machines. R&D chemists now find new drug leads in hours instead of months, and NGOs enact new policies based on big data findings, without the need for extensive field studies. Lawyers can do the same, and in some cases like legal research already have. Think of what lawyers can accomplish working with systems like the IBM Watson-powered Ross at their side.

Some lawyers, like tech-savvy IP attorneys, will have a leg up on those less familiar with new technology. Lawyers and firms can mitigate this by hiring, training, and leaning on a sophisticated administrative team of technologists and business analysts. But lawyers will need to treat these professionals as equal partners, not subordinates to handle their busy work.

What to do: Lawyers will need to hone their technology knowledge and skills on an ongoing basis. Law schools and firms need to make advanced technology a part of their curriculum and continuing education efforts.

4. Step Narrowly

Thanks to capitalism, there will remain nooks and crannies of the law where smart machines do not go. These niches are too specific for companies to make serious money on their technology investments, and they will move on to bigger opportunities. Lawyers, however, will still be able to carve out a healthy business, especially if they are solo or small firms with little overhead.

What to do: If you are already a lawyer in a high-value niche, congratulations! Stay there and defend your turf. For those in a more general practice, think about what specific areas you are most passionate about and begin to build expertise and a professional brand in that space.

5. Step Forward

As the saying goes, if you cannot beat them, join them. This strategy has lawyers stepping right into the thick of the smart machine revolution. They don’t just use the technology, they help build the next generation of tools. Whether working for a software company or remaining a practicing lawyer who partners with vendors, good work will be had for some time training these machines to be smarter and more human. Lawyers that are able to innovate and create new smart applications can also make significantly more money than the traditional billable hour.

What to do: Lawyers that are tech-savvy can explore opportunities with software companies and other corporations that need people with blended skill sets. Others can look to partner with tech-savvy colleagues or technology vendors. Law schools need to teach more courses on technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship. And law firms need to be open to new business models and ways of doing business.

Final Thoughts

Lawyers that embrace change and continually look for ways to add more value can stay ahead of the curve. Which strategy is best will depend on the relative strengths and interests of individual lawyers and the firm as a whole. Many of these strategies mix and match well and can be experimented with to see if they are a right fit for your personality and corporate culture.

One thing is certain though: it is a matter of when, not if, lawyers will be forced to compete for business against those using smart machines. Some say we are already at that point. If you watch what IBM, Google, Microsoft, Baidu and others have accomplished in the last few years, especially in the field of deep learning, you may start thinking the same.

Matt Coatney is an AI expert, data scientist, software developer, technology executive, author, and speaker. His mission is to improve how we interact with smart machines by making software smarter and teaching people how to work (and cope) with advanced technology. Great things happen when smart people and smart machines work together toward a common goal.
Follow Matt on LinkedIn and on Twitter @mattdcoatney. Follow the conversation at #BridgingTheAIGap.