How Soon Before AI Kills The Billable Hour?

Earlier this week, stock prices for Chegg, which provides study materials and outlines for high school and college students, plunged by almost 48 percent reports CNBC.   The culprit? ChatGPT which has cut into much of Chegg’s business in just five months. 

Chegg’s recent losses are yet another reminder of just how quickly ChatGPT can shake up industries.  Law is no different.  By now, you’ve probably seen stories like this NYT piece describing how AI may displace lower level associates or handle routine tasks ordinarily assigned to attorneys.

But perhaps the biggest disruption that AI promises is the end of the billable hour.

After all, how can it possibly be sustainable?

When a tool like Casetext Co-Counsel can summarize the fifty cases cited in an opposing brief in 10 minutes rather than the ten hours it might have taken an attorney, how do you bill for that?

When a lawyer can push a button to generate discovery requests that respond to a complaint that an associate supplements with two hours of review, rather than the two days the project might have taken, how do you bill for that?

And if in-house counsel can use AI-powered tools, how much use will they continue to have for large outside firms?

Consumer clients will soon grow savvy too.  They’ll be able to figure out that all those hours charged for depo prep in a family law case could have been accomplished in an hour with AI.  Or that the canned, Chat-GPT generated email didn’t take an hour to draft.

Flat fees charge for the deliverable, not the process and so they’re less vulnerable than the billable hour in an AI-age.

The wheels of justice may grind slow, but technology moves at lightening speed.  AI may not toll the end of lawyers, but it just may make the billable hour obsolete.  That would be progress.

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