At the Bryan Cave Business Academy in St. Louis on May 18, associates from around the globe contemplated the future of the law firm business model and competed in mock client pitch meetings to better understand alternative fees and how technology can make their practices more efficient. Photo: Roy Strom/ALM

Standing in front of about 50 Bryan Cave associates at a training retreat in May, the firm’s chief innovation officer, Katie DeBord, tried a joke about the progress—or lack thereof—artificial intelligence has made in the legal profession.

“We have not had a robot apocalypse,” DeBord told the group assembled from around the globe. “You guys are not being replaced by robots. Now.” She laughed. They stared back.

It’s DeBord’s job to think about how technology will reshape the Big Law business model. How smart will machines get? And how quickly? If AI is reliably drafting contracts or writing briefs, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be an impact on how firms are staffed and run. This group of associates knows that.

“Millennials are incredibly skeptical of today’s law firm model,” says William Henderson, a law professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. In an ALM Intelligence survey of new partners last year, a mere 6 percent said large firms were “very well prepared” to respond to changes in the business model driven by clients and technology advances.

With all this in mind, Bryan Cave has developed a straightforward yet remarkably rare strategy for adapting to new, technologically driven change: Ask the associates.

For six years, the firm has worked to cultivate a group of young lawyers who are prepared to confront trends in the industry that will impact their firm when they take over as partners. In 2013, the firm invited all its young associates to a two-day training session on the future of the business of law in St. Louis. Every other year since the firm has invited the same class of about 50 associates back to continue to learn how their business is changing.

“You are the next generation of leaders at the firm. You have the power to make change,” LA-based partner Doug Thompson told associates this past May. “If you’re working for a partner who doesn’t get it, be a disruptor. Make a suggestion to do something different.”

The two-day event, called the Bryan Cave Business Academy, is set up as a group competition. Now-retired partner Jon Alber first invited this reporter to sit in two years ago. The associates who choose to attend are a self-selected group with an interest in technology and the changing business of law. They meet in a futuristic co-working space lined with whiteboards. Two years ago, associates competed in a “hackathon” to develop a new piece of software, with the firm promising $10,000 toward development. This year, associates gave a mock presentation to general counsel for an RFP, utilizing the pricing department, technologists and project managers.

Alber, who co-founded the program with Kelli Dunaway, the firm’s assistant director of professional development, is largely credited with instilling Bryan Cave with an openness to technology that has helped the firm twice win the Most Innovative Law Firm of the Year award from the International Legal Technology Association. He predicts more and more revenue streams will be captured by smarter software. “What we’re talking about is inevitability,” Alber told the group in 2015, urging them to use this technology in the firm’s favor.

Joshua James, a sixth-year associate in Washington, D.C., takes it as a given that a “synthetic mind” like IBM’s ROSS, based on Watson technology, is constantly learning the law and getting closer to doing lots of the work associates do today. “You don’t have to say, ‘Oh, remember, the robots are coming,’” James says. “People know that. Or at least, these people know that.”

Alicia Ragsdale is less certain of that result. The St. Louis associate won the “hackathon” at the 2015 Bryan Cave Business Academy with an idea for software that uses “smart tags” required in bankruptcy filings to automatically update both in-house and outside lawyers on filings and would make them easily sortable. “I don’t think there is any fear of the robot apocalypse,” Ragsdale says. “I think we need to learn as much as we can learn about technology so that we can utilize it to enhance the value of what we bring as lawyers.”

The curriculum this year was a more practical guide on how to provide the kinds of services clients are now demanding, as expressed by keynote speaker Connie Brenton, chair of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium, a group of legal operations leaders. Brenton told the associates two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies now have a legal operations director who will drive changes in how firms are hired and how corporate legal departments split up work between outsourcers and other legal service providers.

Using her own legal department at cloud services provider NetApp as a barometer for the changes ahead, Brenton said 60 percent of her legal department’s matters are handled on a fixed-fee basis. The department’s relationship with lawyers is changing as they choose to work with firms that use project management, software and new pricing guidelines.

An associate asked if that makes clients like NetApp more likely to hire law firms that have the ability to provide those services, as opposed to looking to individual partners.

“We are far ahead of the market, so this is your future,” Brenton said. “We will not move with the lawyer. We will stay with the firm.”

Bryan Cave partners were eager to explain to their younger colleagues that their firm already offers the services Brenton stressed. Most recently, Bryan Cave wrapped up its data analysis, technology team and pricing department into a consulting arm called BCXponent, which helps law departments implement these new services. But when Dunaway asked if associates were aware of these services, many were not.

Associate Ambassadors

“If you guys don’t know, do you think partners know?” a slightly frustrated Dunaway asked. “Do you think other associates know? This is what you’re here to learn about. This is valuable information you can take with you and share with the people that you work with.”

The Bryan Cave model is likely to engender loyalty among associates, says Gerry Riskin, a law firm consultant at Edge International. “It’s motivational,” Riskin says. “It shows a lot of respect for those junior people: We respect that you’re the future of the firm and we respect you have minds worthy of participating in that kind of process.”

Even so, it’s hard to know whether the program has been successful in the short term. Partners still call the shots in client relationships, and associates only have so much say.

For James, he estimates 70 percent of the partners he works with are receptive to ideas for more efficient solutions for clients. With a subset of partners who view new ideas as “pretty much a nonstarter,” James says he has stopped making suggestions.

Mohammad Elayan, an associate who has attended the Business Academy, launched a podcast, “Future Meets Law,” in which he interviews lawyers and tech entrepreneurs about how they are changing the legal industry. Associates Giovanni Angles and Ivan London have spoken at legal tech conferences about their experiments with artificial intelligence in law practice.

Bryan Cave’s TechX incubator program lets lawyers pilot new technologies for the firm. The attorneys get hands-on experience with new technologies so they can, as DeBord says, “separate hype from fact” and figure out which products can actually help the firm provide more efficient services.

“People read a lot about the robot associate,” DeBord says. “But the reality is very few attorneys out there can actually have a first-hand touch on the tech to see what it really is.”Dunaway says the training’s real payoff will be when these associates make partner and are able to make changes from the top-down. “That’s why we chose junior associates,” Dunaway says. “Because they’re not corrupted yet by the system and they’re not intransigent yet. If we could have an impact early enough in their careers where they could understand how all this works and the impact they can have, then when they start making partner, that’s the change.”

As for the robot apocalypse, DeBord is right—it’s not as quite as close as some fear. If all currently available legal technologies were universally implemented today, the change would reduce lawyers’ hours at large firms by 13 percent, according to estimates by Frank Levy, a labor economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Dana Remus, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.

James says associates will need to work more closely with new technologies rather than be replaced by them. He feels confident Bryan Cave’s programs like the Business Academy will help the firm use the changes to its advantage.

“But that’s one of those things, right? You don’t know the odds beforehand.”