Danny Gilbert, veteran corporate lawyer and founder of Australia’s Gilbert + Tobin, notes that profound changes are looming for the legal sector — and he is keen to spell out why.

“Generative AI is coming at us; it will gather and analyse all the data you need in major corporate deals,” he says. “It will predict what will happen in court, examine the submissions of opposing counsel and even produce a good first draft of a judgment.”

In the 18 months since the launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT, many law firms in the Asia-Pacific region have moved quickly to embrace this new technology — and even try to get a head start.

Paul Jenkins, global chair of international law firm Ashurst, says: “Artificial intelligence is a significant change for us — to ensure that we not only keep up, but we stay ahead.” Ashurst has conducted pilots and trials involving more than 400 staff, in 23 offices, in 15 countries. “One of the trials showed we can save an average of 45 per cent of [the] time — and, in the most positive case, up to 80 per cent of [the] time — on preparing the first draft of client briefings.”

The efforts of law firms in the region to stay on top of the developing technology show the profession is focused on adapting. From legal documents that can be produced in a minute with 80 per cent accuracy, via MinterEllison, to human holograms that can talk to potential clients, deployed by Corrs Chambers Westgarth, the speed of AI experimentation is striking.

Video description

Guests at the 2024 FT Innovative Lawyers Awards in Hong Kong speak about the changes, opportunities and challenges for lawyers around generative AI

© Financial Times

At a recent global round-table involving 25 legal industry leaders, hosted by the Financial Times, there was a consensus that the law firm of the future would be unrecognisable to the current generation. For a start, many firms have already moved into consulting services in areas adjacent to the law, such as advising on general business risk and implementing regulatory compliance programmes. At Ashurst’s consulting business, for example, annual income grew by just over 60 per cent last year.

Gilbert observes that a multidisciplinary approach could become the norm, and that even firms that want to stick to their legal knitting will hire many more scientists and technologists to deliver legal advice.

So far, law firms in the Asia-Pacific region are using generative AI for tasks ranging from research to creating, analysing and summarising legal documents. Some firms, not just the biggest, have set up proprietorial AI assistants — including Clifford Chance Assist, KWM Chat and Ask. KAI from Khaitan & Co. The firms claim the benefits are immediate. In a King & Wood Mallesons survey of 900-plus active users, 18 per cent said KWM Chat saves between five and 10 hours a week, while more than 70 per cent said it saves up to four hours.

But many firms also sound a note of caution about generative AI’s immediate potential. Ben Allgrove, a partner and seasoned legal technologist at Baker McKenzie, the global law firm, warns that “generative AI hype has echoes of 2017”, when much-heralded advances in machine learning turned out to be modest.

It does mark a significant step up from previous iterations of artificial intelligence, he says, but Baker McKenzie is focusing its experimentation on discrete, client-specific tasks where the data is known to be solid before making big bets on particular AI models.

For Allgrove, one of the most important questions is simply the outlay. Rolling out Microsoft Copilot, Harvey or other generative AI tools to 4,700 fee-earners, let alone all 13,000 staff, looks too expensive when the return on investment remains uncertain. “Different foundation models show materially different performance and cost. Where the balance lies between them is what we need to work out in years to come,” he says.

In addition, there are language issues. Ryutaro Nakayama, managing partner of Nishimura & Asahi, describes the challenge for his firm: “The Japanese language is more complicated than English. We have fewer available data sets, and a lot of Japanese contracts are still paper.” Instead, he envisages the biggest changes at Japanese law firms in the near future will come via a convergence of professional service advisers, where law firms offer adjacent consulting services.

Across the region, though, the short-term productivity gains from using generative AI — even for everyday tasks — look appreciable. “The jump could be better than [that generated by] email in the 1990s,” says Allgrove. “But there is a strategic question as to where those gains will land and where to jump.”

For now, law firm leaders in the region are upbeat about AI developments. Sue Kench, global chief executive at KWM, observes that, while change will arrive slower than some predict, she is already noting benefits to organisational culture at the Australian-Chinese firm.

“I was in one of our regular China management meetings and the improved WeChat [text] translation was better than having a [human] translation in my ear,” she says. “Language informs culture and vice versa, and I hope this AI will bring a better understanding of people.”

FT law firm index, Asia-Pacific: ranking of the top 35 participating law firms based on submissions made to this year’s report and index
RankLaw firmHQ countryTotal score (/100)*Innovation (/50)Digital (/20)People (/20)Social responsibility (/10)
1Gilbert + Tobin**Australia97.75018.818.910
2MinterEllisonAustralia96.65017.6209
3Ashurst***UK95.04820207
4Clifford ChanceUK91.5482015.68
5Baker McKenzieGlobal86.545.315.318.97
6Lander & RogersAustralia86.143.915.318.98
7Freshfields Bruckhaus DeringerUK85.644.616.515.69
8DechertUS85.045.915.317.86
9A&O Shearman****UK/US83.849.315.312.27
10King & Wood MallesonsChina/Australia81.444.617.611.18
11LinklatersUK81.043.216.513.38
12Mayer BrownUS80.842.617.615.65
13Hogan LovellsUK/US79.044.614.113.37
14Corrs Chambers WestgarthAustralia78.541.915.313.38
15DLA PiperUK77.045.911.813.36
16Clayton UtzAustralia76.741.212.915.67
17Khaitan & CoIndia76.343.912.914.45
18Nishimura & AsahiJapan73.345.311.812.24
19Rajah & Tann SingaporeSingapore73.143.915.38.95
20JunHeChina71.341.916.58.94
21Morrison FoersterUS69.737.216.511.15
22Nagashima Ohno & TsunematsuJapan69.441.97.114.46
23Pinsent MasonsUK69.042.69.4107
24Allen & GledhillSingapore65.639.910.611.14
25Morgan LewisUS63.632.415.38.97
26LawpathAustralia63.335.114.1104
27Anand and AnandIndia61.642.68.27.83
28Cyril Amarchand MangaldasIndia59.835.110.611.13
29Tilleke & GibbinsThailand59.133.111.812.22
30Anderson Mori & TomotsuneJapan58.939.99.46.73
31S&R AssociatesIndia57.636.58.28.94
32Regius LegalIndia51.329.711.87.82
33Ahlawat & AssociatesIndia50.129.710.67.82
34Resolüt PartnersIndia41.335.804.41
35Paul HastingsUS39.914.212.97.85
Source: RSGI
*The total score is the sum of scores for a selection of indicators: innovation, digital, people and social responsibility. Scores shown in each column are rounded to one decimal place.
**Winner of the award for ‘Innovative law firm 2024, headquartered in Asia-Pacific’
***Winner of the award for ‘Innovative law firm 2024, headquartered outside Asia-Pacific’
****Scores calculated before May 1 merger of Allen & Overy with Shearman & Sterling

Methodology: FT Innovative Lawyers Asia-Pacific 2024

FT Innovative Lawyers Asia Pacific 2024 is a ranking, report and awards scheme for lawyers based in the region, produced by the FT and its research partner, RSGI, based on a unique methodology.

Law firms and in-house legal teams are invited to make submissions. Each of these is researched and scored out of 10 for originality, leadership, and impact — giving a maximum score of 30 for each published entry. Top-ranked entries in the report are shortlisted for the FT Innovative Lawyers Asia Pacific 2024 Awards.

Some 350 submissions and nominations were received from 76 law firms and 57 in-house legal teams. RSGI researchers checked and assessed them through interviews with clients, senior lawyers, executives and experts between February and April 2024. Featured entries are the submissions that ranked highest in each category.

FT Law Firm Index
The index (above) provides a ranking and a holistic assessment of law firm success. Participating firms were assessed on their submissions and on a separate questionnaire, and ranked on the following criteria, with a maximum total score of 100.

Scores for each indicator are based on allocating a maximum available score to the top-rated firm in this field and recalibrating other scores accordingly:

Innovation
The sum of scores for the top three submissions from each law firm entering the FT Innovative Lawyers Asia Pacific Awards 2024, including those that were not published. Scores were scaled to the maximum of 50 allocated to the leading entry.

Digital
Law firms completed a questionnaire on their use of data and technology. Each of four questions was scored and benchmarked against other responses. Scores were scaled to the maximum of 20 allocated to the leading entry.

People
Law firms completed a questionnaire about diversity and inclusion, wellbeing strategies, and investment in skills for lawyers and for business services people. Four questions were scored and benchmarked against other law firm responses. Scores were scaled to the maximum of 20 allocated to the leading entry.

Social responsibility
Law firms completed a questionnaire on their approach to social responsibility. Two questions covering commitment and investment in pro bono work, and social responsibility and ESG reporting were scored and benchmarked against other law firms. Scores were scaled to the maximum of 10 allocated to the leading entry.

RSGI research team: Mary Ormerod, Tom Saunders, Chris Sharp, Alex Volkers, Mina Jenkins, Toby Weston, Isobel Thorley, Reena SenGupta and Yasmin Lambert.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
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