When Well-Being & AI Collide: Why the Future of Law Is Human

by Paula Davis
From PDQ in NALP Bulletin+
November 2023

Whenever I think about the future of anything, for some reason my mind drifts to Back to the Future II. In the movie, Marty and Doc travel from 1985 to 2015 to prevent Marty’s son from sabotaging the McFly’s family future. Hill Valley has been transformed into a “city of the future” with flying taxi cabs, hoverboards, and shoes with automatic shoelaces. While I don’t think flying taxis are in our immediate future, the rapid advancement of generative artificial intelligence (AI) and the impact it will have on the legal profession is.

Generative artificial intelligence (Gen AI) is a term that describes algorithms (like ChatGPT) that can be used to create new content such as videos, written materials, code, and images. Generative AI systems fall under the broader category of machine learning. When OpenAI, the developer of ChatGPT, released it to the public in November 2022, more than one million people signed up to use it in five days. AI adoption has more than doubled in the past five years, and generative AI tools have the potential to change how a wide range of jobs are performed. Exactly how this will happen, and the subsequent risks are still unknown, but generative AI tools have made their way into the legal profession.

The Future of Law Is Technology-Enabled Yet Human-Centric

It is presumed that some of a lawyer or legal professional’s technical legal work will eventually be consumed by Gen AI tools. Again, exactly how this will happen is still unknown, but Gen AI tools will also create the need for lawyers to further develop human-centered skills (avoiding the phrase “soft skills”) that have long been under-emphasized, if not fully ignored, in law school training and professional development. Why?

Human-centered skills form the basis of well-being, both at work and outside of work. Legal sector analyst, Jordan Furlong, writes, “Lawyers with strong human skills historically have been those with prosperous client relationships, happy colleagues and employees, healthy personal lives, and highly profitable businesses. That’s not some weird coincidence; that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We lost that thread decades ago, and ever since, we’ve been raising up cohorts of brilliant legal technicians with closed minds and closed hearts, to everyone’s detriment.”

Human-centered skills can’t be replaced by Gen AI technology. Furlong suggests that even highly advanced and incredibly accurate Gen AI tools will fail to displace human-centered skills like teamwork, collaboration, creativity, cultivating strong interpersonal relationships internally and externally with clients, emotional regulation, cultural fluency, and stress management. These are skills that technology won’t be able to do better, faster, and cheaper.

More Lawyers Are Thinking and Speaking in Human-Centric Terms

The lawyers and legal professionals who responded to ALM’s 2023 Mental Health Survey were asked what they think needs to change about the legal profession to improve well-being. Many of the responses were a version of: “a culture shift and actual support from leadership,” “increased respect for boundaries,” “the simple act of caring that lawyers are humans and not robots,” “better communication and transparency,” and “community and compassion.”

Lawyers are talking about kindness, empathy, respect, and trust in ways that I have not previously heard in my work. I recently asked two groups of lawyers — a team of in-house counsel and a group of mid-level associates — what made their teams resilient, and their responses included, “respecting my humanity,” “kindness,” and “treating each other with respect.”

Law firms and corporate legal departments are also thinking systemically about how to team with an emphasis toward creating a more human-centric culture. One large organization’s legal department is developing a comprehensive and innovative team model that operationalizes trust, respect, and cohesion across the department, with legal professionals at all levels contributing to this vision. People who report that they feel part of a team are more likely to be engaged at work, three times as likely to be highly resilient, and twice as likely to report a strong sense of belonging to their organization.

And recent research shows the important connection between human-centeredness and lawyer well-being. One study asked nearly 2,000 lawyers the following question: “What do you feel your employer values most about you?” Lawyers’ responses were categorized into three different groups.

Lawyers who answered the question with statements like, “My overall talent and skill as a lawyer” and “My inherent worth as a human being” were assigned to Group 1 called Professionalism/Individual. Lawyers who answered the question with statements like, “My productivity or the hours I bill” and “My responsiveness, availability, and ability to generate business” were assigned to Group 2 called Financial Worth/Availability. Lawyers who answered the question with statements like, “I don’t know — I get very little feedback” and “Not much — my employer does not make me feel valued” were assigned to Group 3 called No Value/No Feedback.

Each lawyer was then asked to answer questions about their levels of perceived stress, mental and physical health, and work overcommitment. The results showed a clear health hierarchy. The lawyers in Group 1 reported much better mental health, followed by Group 2, and then Group 3. In addition, lawyers in Groups 2 and 3 were much more likely to answer “yes” to the question, “Are you considering leaving, or have you left the profession due to mental health, burnout, or stress?” with 26.7% of Group 2 and 37.4% of Group 3 saying yes, compared to 15.4% of lawyers in Group 1.

Skills That Promote Human-Centered Leaders and Teams

Human-centered skills need to be prioritized in lawyer leadership and professional development training at the same level as business and technology skills. The goal is to create future leaders who both enable technology but also engage, inspire, and help each other and their teams adapt to increasing complexity, uncertainty, and change.

Here are four places to start:

1. Double down on relationships and connection. Relationships and connection are critical for thriving at work, and it’s been difficult for many law firms and legal organizations to figure out how to best maintain connection in a hybrid work environment. Add to that new research showing that employees who frequently interact with AI systems are more likely to experience loneliness with potential well-being consequences. Researchers conducted four separate studies across cultures and workplace industries (including the U.S.) and found that for those participants who experienced loneliness from working in a high-frequency AI environment, many also had increased rates of insomnia and after-work drinking.

Loneliness is already a significant issue in the legal profession, with pre-pandemic research showing lawyers to be among the loneliest professionals surveyed. It’s especially critical that new professionals feel a sense of belonging quickly. These strategies will help you kickstart stronger connections:

  • Provide greater responsibility to more junior lawyers for tasks that are both visible and important to the organization; give them opportunities to lead or develop new programs or training, and to speak or write on behalf of the legal organization.

  • Provide unstructured time to enable members to talk about non-work-related topics, so they continue to get to know each other at both in-person retreats and conferences, and in virtual meetings.

  • “Fill the bleachers” — the ease with which people can be added to a remote meeting creates a zero-cost opportunity for observational learning. Billable hours concerns aside, designate a few “bleacher seats” at important calls or meetings for associates and others who are interested to watch and learn more.

Importantly, ask these questions, which help surface tough issues that over time erode the fabric of connection and engagement if not addressed:

  1. Do we shelter toxic leaders?

  2. Do we have the right people in the right places?

  3. Are people checking in on each other regularly?

  4. Is the work environment transactional?

  5. Are benefits aligned with employee priorities?

  6. Can we provide the career paths and development opportunities that people want?

2. Train the ABCs. The ABCs — autonomy, belonging and challenge — are the engine of workplace motivation and well-being. I wrote about the ABCs in my first book, Beating Burnout at Work. At that time, I identified this trio as an important part of the “antiburnout” team environment, and their importance is also reinforced in the book, Workplace Mental Health & Well-Being.

In fact, the ABCs are now a foundational aspect of two large scale, national well-being frameworks: the U.S. Surgeon General’s Framework and the National Academy of Medicine’s Taking Action Against Clinician Burnout: A Systems Approach to Professional Well-Being. ABC’s have also been found to be among the top drivers of lawyer well-being and motivation and are more fully described here.

  • Autonomy: You feel like you have some choice as to how and when you perform the various tasks that make up your job and in how you execute your daily responsibilities, you have a say in the way things are done, and you can take initiative and make decisions about your work. New research shows that providing context for rules and goals, avoiding controlling language, and letting busy professionals decide for themselves how to accomplish their goals are powerful ways to increase autonomy.

  • Belonging: This is your desire to feel connected to others; to feel like you belong to groups that are important and significant to you; you feel cared for by others; and you value creating high-quality relationships.

  • Challenge (and growth): You feel like you’re getting better at goals that matter to you, you feel effective in your work role, and you want to continue to grow and develop as a professional and master new skills. Mentoring, upskilling, and even re-skilling will become necessary to help lawyers and legal professionals feel challenged and keep pace with the rate of change.

3. Prioritize “sticky recognition.” Sticky recognition is an authentic form of feedback or communication that can be expressed in different ways, but which highlights the specific behaviors a person exhibited or the strengths they used to achieve a positive outcome. It goes beyond a mere “thank you” and can include words of affirmation, an act of service, or an invitation to an important meeting. Sticky recognition is important because it activates meaning, belonging (the B in the ABC model above), a sense of growth in your work (the C in the ABC model above), and well-being. The end result is that the recipient feels respected and a profound sense of “I matter,” which is powerful psychological fuel.

Here is an example of what sticky recognition sounds like, in the words of a former BigLaw lawyer who posted this story on LinkedIn.

“When I was a junior associate, I had a tedious assignment to summarize a set of deposition transcripts for a partner. It wasn’t glamourous or exciting, but I did it, sent it in, and moved on. Three weeks later, I saw the partner’s name pop up on my caller ID. My first reaction was an inner groan, because I wasn’t clamoring to comb through another set of deposition transcripts, but I picked up anyway. To my great surprise, the partner told me he was just calling to say thanks. ‘I know that probably wasn’t the most exciting project you’ve had, but the summaries were clearly organized and helped me find key takeaways quickly. I just wanted to say thanks.’ The whole conversation lasted maybe 120 seconds, but I still remember it almost 14 years later. And going forward, I said yes to any assignment he called with — and that’s ultimately how I got my first federal court argument.”

This stuck because the partner didn’t just say thank you. He added the reason why he was so grateful, and it took no more than two minutes to communicate something she’s remembered for 14 years.

4. Teach “systemic” resilience. The change and uncertainty being driven by Gen AI and the world of work generally requires resilience at all levels. Resilience is a person’s, team’s, and organization’s capacity to navigate uncertainty, change, and stressors and grow and thrive from those challenges. Resilience can refer to how you respond to adverse events in the moment, how your team prepares for events it anticipates will happen, and how your legal organization processes challenges after they have occurred.

I have had the good fortune to teach thousands of lawyers the skills associated with resilience at the individual, team, and organizational levels, and I know the power they carry. Research from Better Up’s Lab shows that individuals and organizations with higher levels of resilience are happier, healthier, and more successful in uncertain and changing environments, and companies with higher workforce resilience see 320% more year-over-year growth than those with lower levels.

These are the qualities that most strongly contribute to increased resilience for individuals, teams, and organizations (all of which can be taught, practiced, and improved). (See Table 1.)

Table 1. Qualities that Contribute to Increased Resilience

Lawyers and legal professionals have a unique opportunity to change the narrative around what matters in law, especially as Gen AI takes hold. While many people and companies hire lawyers because of a certain level of expertise, when you ask clients what they truly value about their lawyers, they often say things like, “they were a tremendous support for me,” “I knew we could count on them to keep us informed,” or “they were the calm in the storm.”

I received the following email from a partner at a large law firm recently supporting this notion: “It seems to me that one of the main obstacles to happier teams at law firms is the prevailing culture of our profession. We’re expected to behave like cool and rational professionals all the time. On some level clinical detachment is what our clients need from us, but I would argue (1) it’s not what they most want from us and (2) focusing on it causes us to de-emphasize and de-value some of the things that matter most to us. It’s skills like listening [and] empathy that differentiate the most successful lawyers from everyone else. Those aren’t the analytical or technical skills we learn in school and develop throughout our careers; they’re the skills that make clients feel we care about their problems.”

While law is a service industry and lawyers need to accommodate, the conversation about Gen AI presents a unique opportunity — the chance to balance profit-centric and money-focused messages with designing the future of the profession in a way that promotes well-being and valuing lawyers and legal professionals as human beings first.

Paula Davis JD, MAPP (paula@stressandresilience.com) is the Founder and CEO of the Stress & Resilience Institute, a training and consulting firm. Since 2020, Paula has delivered over 350 workshops, keynotes, and programs on burnout prevention, resilience, and leadership.

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