When asked why they believe the legal field can be slow to embrace emerging technologies, Morgan Lewis partners and AI Visionaries Tess Blair and Scott Milner each had a unique perspective on attorneys’ tendency to resist change. But they both agreed demonstrating, in hard facts, the statistical value that tech like AI can bring to the legal process is what will get more lawyers on board with giving it a try.
The legal sector has a reputation of being slow to embrace new technologies. But the two of you stand out as early adopters of AI. What are some of the structural barriers that keep the legal sector from adopting new technologies? How and why did you take an interest in AI?
Tess: I've been psychoanalyzing lawyers for least 25 years, and of course, my practice has been a proponent of adopting technology. And I have observed that, if things are going well—the market's great, everybody's busy—we're just going to do things how we have always done them, right? It is only in times of stress on the profession that we've been able to make leaps in the adoption of technology.
Lawyers have to work smarter when they're under pressure, either because the market is creating downward pressure on rates, or there's more or better competition, or simply no firm wants to turn down work. It's times like this when we see real leaps in the growth of technology adoption: when lawyers are out of their comfort zone.
Scott: What interested me in AI is that I knew I needed to differentiate myself somehow, so investing in learning how new technologies worked and determining whether they would or would not make me more efficient was well worth it. I am inquisitive generally, so trying to learn more about AI and new technologies did not feel like work. I personally did not want to have FOMO for not being one of the first to help introduce a new workflow or technology to support an engagement.
How can the legal sector acclimatize to rapidly changing technology? In that context, can you share any anecdotes or lessons on how you drove the adoption of new technologies such as AI?
Tess: I talk a lot about numbers because that seems to be the one thing that can override someone's gut feeling of hesitation. We have data going back more than a decade that demonstrates that technology is both more efficient and results in higher quality work product than putting a bunch of lawyers in a room.
Scott: Change is not easy, so adopting and embracing rapidly changing technologies can be challenging. For me, driving adoption is all about showing small wins—demonstrating that technology and process improvements can help solve a client’s or colleague’s problem much quicker or with better results. When I see law firms or law departments facing challenges innovating and adopting technology, I try and tackle it by showing the benefits of incremental innovation, so it feels less overwhelming.
For legal professionals who are passionate about technologies such as AI, is there an opportunity to further one’s career by working more closely with it and evangelizing its use?
Tess: Yes, I actually think there is for everybody. “The legal athlete” was a term I heard used by the general counsel of a large financial services company. And I think it really captures what future lawyers are, and what skills lawyers will be expected to bring to the table. It's not just, “I can practice law and do legal research”—because machines are going to do a lot of the kind of first-level work that we all trained on. The real legal athletes are going to be project managers who understand how to manage groups of people, as well as arrays of software, and how to bring it all to bear. They're going to need to be far more creative. They're going to have to have some design skills. They're not necessarily going to need to know how to code, but they're going to need to understand how technology, and AI specifically, works.
Scott: Ignoring technology is no longer an option. The cross-section between legal and technology, including AI, is here to stay—so why not join in and be an evangelist and supporter rather than a laggard?
What have you learned from your experience at Morgan Lewis so far? What wins are you proud of?
Scott: Driving change in a large organization is not easy, but so worth it when it happens. I’ve learned the importance of being patient, persistent, having thick skin, being not afraid of hearing “no” or “it will never work”—all while finding ways to relate to all types of consumers. I needed to not only find champions and supporters, but also learn how to have tough conversations with the non-adopters that did not believe or understand what we wanted to do in order to find ways to drive change.
As for the win I am most proud of, that is easy. It is still being here 20 years later. I am just as excited about what I do today as I was on day one. Being part of an organization and team that wants to drive change and look for ways to disrupt and improve the way we deliver legal services keeps me around, keeps me excited, and challenges me to always do better.
But in all honesty, when people today ask me about my proudest moment or proudest accomplishment my answer remains the same: I am still not done yet, so ask me in 5, 10, or 20 years.
What were your interests early on and what drew you to the practice of law?
Tess: I've had a kind of long and unusual path to the law. Actually, right out of high school, I went to art school and studied fine arts. Then I studied industrial design.
I've always had this kind of ferocious need to be creative. And this practice has really fed that, as I’m helping to develop new ways of practicing. We call it “doing the world differently” because we feel like there are ways to innovate in the practice of law, leveraging a combination of people, process, and technology. So that's been able to feed my need to be creative. It’s perfect.
What do you do when you are not working? How do you decompress?
Tess: I'm taking an art class right now. Most of the stuff you see behind me [on this video call], with the exception of that painting, I made—like this piece of furniture here. My whole house is my canvas. So that's what I do. Right now I'm working on a drawing for my class. I do a lot of art. I've got usually 15 things going on at once, and then I have two children—ages eight and six—who also really love art. So there's always something going on here that's very artistic.
Scott: My three go-to activities when I am not working include travel, exercise and training for something to challenge my mind and body, and socializing with family and friends. All three fill up my human interaction tank.
First, travel and exploring different parts of the world is a must. Over the last two years, I have spent more time visiting South and Central American countries and they have been amazing. For me, nothing compares to travel—although I often do not “rest” when traveling, which means I often need to decompress after travel! I read this quote and it resonated with me: “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.”
Second, exercise is key. When the pandemic hit and closed all gyms, I took up running more and listening to audiobooks. I continue to run and now push myself by signing up for races. This keeps me accountable.
Last but not least, social interaction. Spending quality time with family and friends is so important to me. This time reminds me about life outside of work and allows me to recharge to tackle the next challenge with work.
Which person (living or deceased) do you most admire?
Scott: There are so many people I have admired over the years, including anyone who has helped drive positive change in the world despite being challenged to accept the status quo. I am also consistently in awe of those who serve or have served in our Armed Forces, protecting our freedoms daily. With that said, my late mother will always be my biggest role model. She was a single mother who had nothing, lived paycheck to paycheck, and did everything for her children; nothing for herself. She was far from perfect, but she taught me sacrifice, hustle, and compassion. Her struggle was my motivation to succeed.
What do you consider the most underrated quality or skill?
Tess: I think the ability to be concise is something people have lost. It's an indication of how somebody thinks, if they can distill something down and say it concisely, or write it concisely. Maybe that's a surprising answer, but it’s something I really value.