Who’s afraid of the big bad ChatGPT…?

Looking at the impact of shadow work
Austrian philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich is credited with creating the idiom shadow work in his 1981 book of the same title. The term refers to unpaid work that economies rely upon to complement paid labour in the provision of goods and services. At the time, shadow work was attributed largely to family life, with a focus towards domestic tasks and how they continued to contribute to the growth of industrial societies.
Modern interpretation has evolved to include developments in technology and how businesses embrace these to transfer tasks to their customers. The mass digital transformation has created apps for a range of tasks we now do for ourselves, but that used to form part of the critical customer service differentiator. We’re all used to being petrol pump attendants, travel agents, supermarket cashiers and bank managers, but these services were once all provided for us. Some still are, but others are becoming increasingly scarce.
The Pros and Cons

The expectations placed upon us are all involuntary, but some are welcome. Time and money savings are potential customer benefits, as are greater autonomy and a sense of control. However, these benefits can quickly be replaced by frustration, cost, and wasted time when encountering a problem or using unfamiliar technology.

Industry can submit resource efficiencies and productivity gains as reasons to be cheerful, but these omit some of the underlying issues created by increased shadow work that have impacts extending beyond the obvious.

The 2015 book Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day by former Harvard magazine editor Craig Lambert challenges the positive impact of shadow work, instead highlighting the negative effects increased automation has on social interaction and employment. Pushing more tasks onto customers leaves them less time to relax with family and friends by filling up the hours with basic tasks needed to run a household or book a holiday.

Similarly, adopting technology to push labour-intensive, low-skilled tasks externally may save individual companies money, but it increases levels of shadow work and leaves a portion of the workforce perfectly suited to such tasks unable to find jobs.

Is shadow work a positive for law firms?

One of the biggest challenges facing law firms is fee earner burnout. Pressure to maximise billable time continues to grow, but among these customers without enough time to relax are legal professionals and their time away from work is being increasingly reduced by the demands of shadow work.

Furthermore, the legal sector is highly regulated, and lawyers are highly skilled professionals with expertise in specialised areas. There is perhaps, therefore, limited scope for shadow work to lessen the burden, with the inevitable consequence of increased levels of stress and mental health problems. Research conducted in 2020/21 by legal mental health charity LawCare suggests burnout is a legitimate issue, although myriad reasons can be attributed to this.

Remote and hybrid working further blur the lines, with the distinction between the office and home now hard to articulate and many feeling they are simply unable to escape work of some kind in any meaningful way.

The impacts of technology and AI

Technology can, however, make a key contribution by introducing software that allows legal workflow automation, reducing the volume of menial and repetitive tasks that take lawyers time to complete and leaving them with greater flexibility to engage in high-value activities. AI developments and the increased adoption of emerging technologies within the sector represent further opportunities to lessen the burden of both paid and shadow work.

ChatGPT, a chatbot capable of writing emails, answering questions, or generating lines of code based on a prompt, is a current hot topic and undoubtedly the source of future benefits in the sector. Allen & Overy has recently announced its integration of Harvey into its operations, an AI platform designed to enhance legal work and an apparent game-changer for the industry.

Whilst the role of lawyers in providing legal expertise will remain undiminished, the ability of AI technology to effortlessly draft contracts, pleadings, and court documents represent significant scope to impact how lawyers spend their days and, in turn, their capacity and efficiency. The impact on the traditional time-based pricing model in the sector is the subject of great debate and time will tell how an increasingly technology-led service will define its value and how to charge clients.

Harvey, ChatGPT and other AI assistants will no doubt transform how legal services are delivered in future, but at present, it’s not totally autonomous. In addition to lessening the burden of mundane tasks from lawyers, they perform many administrative jobs currently performed by unqualified or junior staff. If AI replaces this support structure, rationalisations are inevitable and it’s hard to define how much shadow work it will create for those that survive the AI revolution.

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Authored by

Andrew Leaitherland
Andrew Leaitherland Founder and CEO
Although Andrew is an employment lawyer by training, over the last fifteen years he has built up extensive experience in leading M&A activity with professional services firms including leading the listing of DWF Group plc on the main market of the London Stock Exchange. Andrew uses these skills to advise strategically on inorganic growth opportunities for all types of professional services businesses, in conjunction with other members of arch who support on the necessary legal work. Andrew is also the Chair of The Legal Director and a NED of Summize which gives him great insight into how the respective businesses can collaborate to further the interests of our clients.

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