Press Release

Will AI Unravel the Billable Hour?

Vivan Marwaha, Product Marketing Manager

The rapid mainstreaming of generative AI has ignited thought provoking conversations about its potential to reshape the fundamental economics of the legal industry. Central to this discussion is the fate of the deeply-entrenched billable hour pricing model upon which most law firms have built their businesses for decades.

In a provocative webinar hosted by LegalOn Technologies, legal tech analyst Richard Tromans staked out a bold position - for generative AI to truly take hold and transform legal service delivery, it must unravel and replace the billable hour paradigm entirely.

Daniel Lewis and Richard Tromans discuss Generative AI's impact on the future of the legal industry.

Tromans asserted: "As long as lawyers bill you by the hour and they're economically active, things will carry on. If things start to change, then...we're getting into the land of real."

The "real" he refers to is a legal industry where the intrinsic value of services is no longer tethered to cycles of human effort expended, but to the substantive worth of the work product generated. It's a paradigmatic reset that dislodges a bedrock pricing model hardwired into the profession's DNA.

For Tromans, generative AI has the potential to drive step-function improvements in attorney productivity and output quality. If tasks that previously commanded premium hourly rates can be completed exponentially faster and more accurately, the fundamental value equation underlying billable hour economics begins to erode.

"If things start to change, then, from the calculations, any law firm that does it [adopts generative AI tools] properly will be more profitable. The partners will take home more money, simple as that."

It’s unclear that generative AI will necessarily unravel the billable hour. During the webinar, LegalOn CEO Daniel Lewis cited an example of how a LegalOn law firm customer is leveraging generative AI to add more value to their service offerings and boost client capacity – without completely overhauling their underlying pricing approach:

"We did a webinar with one of our customers, a solo practitioner with a small team behind him. He handles a lot of outside work for corporations, and he's a very creative thinker about this. He was pointing out that with his use of technology LegalOn to help do contract review in part, he was increasing his turnaround times. And as a result, he was charging more because his service was getting more valuable, and he was able to take on more customers in a scalable way. Yeah, it was a very system-based view of, how does this tie together to help transform his business model?"

This points to a viable future where law firms harness generative AI to become more efficient and deliver enhanced value to clients - but do so in a manner compatible with hourly billing. The focus shifts to leveraging AI-driven automation to take on higher volumes of work at premium rates by providing differentiated service, rather than racing to slash prices.

Perhaps tellingly, Lewis pointed to in-house legal departments as the context where generative AI is already making transformative inroads - absent any billable hour constraints:

"On the corporate side...there's such a different set of incentives around efficiency than you find in law firms that an hour saved is truly an hour saved, it's not $800 or $1,000 lost from billable time. And so whether it's an in-house legal team, or, say, an administrative unit within the law firm that's not really a profit center, every hour saved is really meaningful. And I think I see those teams moving quickly through the stages of identifying technology, buying it, adopting it, and overcoming everybody's natural resistance to change because they're not, at the same time, fighting a profit motive, a profit incentive where it can be hard to say, 'Well, I saved an hour but did that cost me money?'"

This dynamic underscores the huge value many corporate legal departments are already deriving from generative AI tools without any explicit mandate to overhaul their pricing strategies. Absent the incentives of the billable hour, they can embrace the technology's efficiency and quality benefits more readily.

Nevertheless, Lewis also emphasized the remarkable excitement and soaring adoption he's witnessing around generative AI tools across both in-house departments and law firms of all sizes. This enthusiasm transcends any single technological capability or pricing model:

"Gen AI, to me, does not feel like [a niche] tool...But it is a tool that's gonna help you summarize documents, or redline agreements, or X, Y, Z, things that are common across everybody. And so in so far as they help, I think they're an equal opportunity solution for whether you're a large or a more small firm in terms of the types of tasks that they can take on if you can get the price point right."

Perhaps therein lies the crux - can law firms find a sweet spot where they leverage generative AI to deliver differentiated client value in a manner still conducive to hourly billing? Or will competitive and economic pressures inevitably force them to decouple from this model to fully exploit the technology's transformative potential?

While still in its nascent stages, generative AI's maturation trajectory within legal services delivery appears to be on a collision course with the sector's most deeply-embedded pricing strategy. Whether this collision prompts a widespread unraveling of the billable hour model, or merely forces its evolution remains to be seen. But what's indisputable is the technology's skyrocketing adoption and the palpable excitement around its potential to reshape legal service delivery for the better. The jury may still be out on the billable hour's long-term fate in this new paradigm, but clearly the old debate has been electrified with new urgency.

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