Generative AI for Law: The Agile Legal Business Model for Law Firms


The evolution of the legal industry's billing practices and the integration of Generative AI in law are reshaping traditional norms and challenging the long-standing billable hour model. Reginald Heber Smith's pioneering efforts in 1914 marked the inception of the billable hour system, which has remained a cornerstone of legal practice. However, this model has faced criticism over the years for encouraging overbilling and commodification of legal services. With the advent of Generative AI, tasks that were once billed hourly, such as contract drafting and legal research, are now accomplished more efficiently and cost-effectively. This technological shift has significant implications for legal professionals, particularly junior associates and entry-level lawyers, as it reduces demand for their roles. Salaries may stagnate or decrease, exacerbating existing challenges in the job market for inexperienced legal professionals. In response to these changes, the legal industry is moving toward an Efficiency-Centric Legal Business Model, similar to how tech giants compensate their software developers, emphasizing project-based or fixed salary compensation with bonuses tied to efficiency and client satisfaction. This paradigm shift reflects the industry's move towards outcome-oriented, client-centric legal services, aligning more closely with real-world practice and enhancing the value delivered to clients. This transformative approach can be termed "Agile Legal."  

Billable hour  

The emergence of the billable hour business model in law firms can be attributed to the pioneering efforts of Reginald Heber Smith, a Harvard Law School graduate who assumed leadership of the Boston Legal Aid Society in 1914. Seeking to enhance financial management, Smith collaborated with the Harvard Business School to develop a comprehensive system for tracking and overseeing the organization's finances. Among his groundbreaking innovations was the introduction of meticulous timekeeping records for attorneys working on various cases. Five years later, Smith, by then renowned for his seminal work on legal aid titled "Justice and the Poor," assumed the role of managing partner at the newly formed Hale and Dorr law firm. He brought along his precise accounting system, which included the introduction of a daily time sheet. Reflecting on this innovation many decades later, Smith acknowledged that what he initially deemed a straightforward form for recording client details, matter names, and time spent working on cases was met with resistance from the lawyers at Hale and Dorr. In fact, he noted that it "seemed to them little better than a slave system." Nonetheless, Smith's pioneering work laid the foundation for the billable hour system that continues to shape the legal profession today.

“The 1958 Lawyer and His 1938 Dollar” American Bar Association, 1958 

Issue with billable hours 

In 1958, the American Bar Association (ABA) endorsed the billable hour as an appropriate method of fee calculation, and law firms began to adopt it more widely. This model allowed lawyers to charge clients based on the actual time spent on their cases, theoretically aligning fees with effort and expertise. While it provided transparency, it also created pressures for lawyers to bill more hours, leading to concerns about overbilling and the commodification of legal services. Despite these criticisms, the billable hour remains the dominant billing method in the legal industry, shaping the way law firms operate and how clients pay for legal expertise.

Billable hours & Generative AI 

The traditional billable hour model, as historically established by Reginald Heber Smith and still prevalent in the legal profession today, faces profound challenges in the era of Generative AI in Law. With Large Language Models (LLMs), tasks that were once billed by the hour, such as reading, drafting, and analyzing contracts, can now be accomplished in a fraction of a second at significantly reduced costs. LLMs possess the ability to parse vast volumes of legal documents, identify crucial information, and generate contract drafts, all with remarkable efficiency and reasonable accuracy. Consequently, the value proposition of billable hours, which hinges on time-consuming manual legal work, is eroding as LLMs handle these tasks more swiftly and economically. The legal profession must adapt to this technological transformation, reevaluating its billing structures and redefining the role of attorneys in providing high-level strategic counsel while harnessing AI tools to streamline routine legal tasks.

 Implications for Legal Salaries and Entry-Level Opportunities

The integration of Generative AI into the legal landscape not only challenges the billable hour model but also has significant implications for the salaries of legal professionals. As AI-driven technologies become more proficient at handling routine legal tasks, the demand for junior attorneys and paralegals to perform these tasks is decreasing. This reduction in demand, coupled with the increased efficiency and cost-effectiveness of Generative AI, can lead to a downward pressure on salaries for legal professionals.

Consider a scenario where a law firm, seeking to streamline its operations and reduce costs, utilizes Generative AI to handle contract drafting and initial legal research. In such a scenario, the firm may find it unnecessary to hire as many junior associates or entry-level legal staff as before, leading to a decreased demand for these positions. Consequently, salaries for legal professionals at the lower end of the experience spectrum may face stagnation or even reduction due to the reduced demand.

This trend is particularly challenging for legal professionals with no or low experience, as they were already facing a competitive job market before the widespread adoption of AI in the legal field. The legal industry had been grappling with an oversupply of law school graduates and a shortage of available attorney positions, primarily because law firms were hesitant to hire and train junior associates in a cost-sensitive market.

Generative AI exacerbates this challenge by further limiting entry-level job opportunities, as these technologies handle more routine tasks traditionally assigned to junior lawyers. This can result in a reduced number of attorney jobs available for recent law school graduates or lawyers with minimal experience, making it even more challenging for them to secure employment and gain valuable practical experience.

From 1958 to 2024: Towards Efficiency-Centric Legal Business Model

“The 1958 Lawyer and His 1938 Dollar” American Bar Association, 1958 

According to American Bar Association (ABA) publication in 1958 titled “The 1958 Lawyer and His 1938 Dollar”

In 1954 more than half of the lawyers in the United States received a net income of less than $7,382. When we realize that from "net income" the lawyer must pay federal and state income taxes and other personal taxes, it is apparent that the average lawyer in this country does not receive a living wage.

It added further for fee-earning hours and hourly rates: 

Each lawyer is urged to make a tabulation showing the specific number of his days and hours actually spent on clients' business. 

The evolving landscape of law firms is embracing a new business model that draws parallels with how tech giants like Google, Meta, Microsoft, and Oracle compensate their software developers and engineers. Unlike the traditional classroom-centric legal education, this modern approach prioritizes hands-on experience through law clinic-based work, aligning more closely with real-world legal practice. A significant departure from the billable hour system, law firms are increasingly adopting compensation structures that are project-based or offer fixed salaries. Bonuses are awarded not for the number of hours billed, but for the efficiency and effectiveness of the work delivered. Much like software developers and engineers who receive incentives for developing high-quality, efficient code, legal professionals now stand to gain bonuses when they achieve positive outcomes for clients swiftly. This shift signifies a move towards outcome-oriented, client-centric legal services that value efficiency, innovation, and client satisfaction over the sheer number of hours worked, mirroring the compensation philosophies of software giants in the tech industry.

We can call this refined Law Firm Practice, Agile Legal. 


In the landscape of the legal profession, the integration of Generative AI is ushering in a new era, embodied by the Agile Legal Business Model. This approach emphasizes efficiency, client satisfaction, and adaptability, aligning legal practice with the principles that drive the tech industry's giants. By departing from the traditional billable hour model and fostering outcome-oriented legal services, the legal industry can enhance its value proposition, empowering legal professionals to deliver high-quality counsel while leveraging AI for routine tasks. As we embrace Generative AI for law, the Agile Legal Business Model not only transforms the way legal work is performed but also redefines the role of lawyers in providing strategic and client-centric solutions. It is an exciting and promising future for the legal profession, marked by innovation, efficiency, and a relentless commitment to serving clients in the most effective and agile manner possible.


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