How AI is enhancing, not threatening, the future of professionals

The widespread influence of artificial intelligence (AI) on nearly every facet of our lives is undeniable. Its rapid expansion has prompted us to reflect on how it can redefine the roles of professionals across industries and presents an opportunity for us to reshape the value we bring to the table. Generative AI holds the potential to drive this transformation –– and the question is not “if” but “when.”

To better understand and support the way professionals and employers are experiencing this time of disruption, we conducted a global study of over 1,200 individuals working across legal, tax and accounting, global trade, compliance and risk industries. Not surprisingly, those we surveyed viewed AI as a catalyst for immense growth, particularly in the areas of increasing productivity and empowering professionals to make the most of their human talent.

Enhancing efficiency: A practical outlook

Professionals agree on AI’s potential to enhance productivity and efficiency. The application of AI is expected to address operational challenges and reshape work processes. Optimism abounds when professionals consider AI’s power in alignment with operational needs, talent, customer expectations, and environmental considerations.

In the legal industry in particular, this enthusiasm for productivity improvement is notably divided between law firms and in-house legal departments. The priorities for productivity differ, reflecting unique objectives within each segment.

Driven by the notion of AI as a competitor, fear of job displacement still looms in some corners of the professional world.

Among law firms, enhancing operations is the primary concern. Notably, 75% of legal professionals and 59% of tax and accounting professionals prioritize productivity. Improving internal efficiency is rated a close second by 50% of law firm employees and 55% of those in the tax and accounting field. In contrast, in-house departments prioritize safeguarding the business, focusing on staying current with regulations and legislation.

Both segments agreed that one of the biggest fears surrounding the use of AI is the risk of accuracy. Although the potential of AI to remove human error is improving, many respondents said they do not yet have complete confidence in the accuracy of its outputs.

Professionals suggested that if clients begin using AI themselves, it could bring new challenges, especially if they are unaware when an answer is inaccurate or incomplete. This further underscores the need for a human — preferably one with experience and industry knowledge — to remain involved in the process, checking for accuracy when the technology is used rather than taking the output at face value.

Of course, this concern evokes the age-old tension between a firm’s desire to increase profitability and the in-house need to reduce external spending. Nearly half (48%) of professionals predicted lower costs for firms resulting from AI use, which holds the potential for greater firm profitability. Meanwhile, 60% of respondents indicated that they expect efficiencies gained from AI internally to result in more work moving in-house.

For either side of that equation to capitalize on AI’s true opportunities, the role that AI will play needs to be clearly defined. It is crucial to identify which routine tasks should be automated, going one step further to then define which tasks can be performed by machines alone and which require human oversight. Likewise, employers should thoroughly assess their competitive advantages and areas for improvement, taking into account their client roster and the talent within their organization. Once they have identified significant opportunities for AI-driven growth, implementing those changes rapidly and decisively is key.

Empowering value: AI as an enabler

AI augments productivity and internal efficiencies and is expected to continue to do so as technology advances. Yet, these enhancements are just the starting point. As we delve deeper into the AI landscape, a critical question emerges: Who will perform the work? That answer shapes all further discussions around human and technological resources and return on investment.

Driven by the notion of AI as a competitor, fear of job displacement still looms in some corners of the professional world. However, nearly two-thirds of respondents foresee an increased appreciation of their skills, viewing the advent of AI as a force that can elevate professional skills rather than replace them.

However, a significant concern still needs to be addressed regarding the skill sets required to capitalize on AI’s potential impact on their profession. A substantial 87% of respondents believe that the impending reshaping of the workforce will require training for new skills, with a majority (55%) estimating it will happen in the next 18 months. Simultaneously, over two-thirds of professionals predict that junior professionals will require new training and anticipate a re-envisioning of the way that colleges and universities prepare students for professional environments.

Individuals and organizations that fail to adapt risk being left behind whenever new technologies are developed. The inevitable disruptive nature of AI means that individuals and organizations must regularly evaluate their professional skills, assets, and liabilities. Generative AI will not replace highly trained lawyers and accountants, but lawyers and accountants wielding the knowledge of how to use generative AI will certainly replace those who are not.

Navigating AI’s impact responsibly

The integration of AI with human skills is a nuanced endeavor rife with both synergies and tensions. To fully realize AI’s potential while mitigating pitfalls, professionals must remain firmly anchored to their personal motivations. Research shows that two of the top five personal motivations directly relate to clients. For 67% of respondents, the No. 1 motivator was to produce high-quality advice, and the fourth-ranked motivator (55%) was to provide high-quality service.

Concern about the accuracy of AI undermines the ability to deliver quality advice and service and is one of the primary reasons professionals see the need to regulate AI. Most professionals (93%) recognize the need for regulation. While we may not have all the answers now, we can start putting some fundamental guardrails in place to help drive trust and innovation in AI. We need to get comfortable with regulating — within our respective industries and as a society overall — based on what we know today, while being prepared to correct our course as we go.

AI’s impact on work-life balance

The second most important motivator cited for professionals is maintaining a healthy work-life balance. In industries such as legal and accounting, long hours and high stress are commonplace. That said, more than half (53%) of the professionals surveyed said that their work had a strongly or moderately positive impact on their mental health and well-being. It is not hard to envision how AI can reduce repetitive and mundane tasks and free up professionals for more fulfilling endeavors and potentially, a better work-life balance.

We are just beginning to understand how professionals can benefit from AI’s capabilities. Yet, long-term success will require both self-governance and a public-private partnership in order to establish ground rules for the industry at large. It will be critical to hold each other accountable to use AI in a responsible way that professionals can trust to deliver quality results while increasing the balance between professional fulfillment and personal well-being.

The future of work: A collaborative effort

Professionals are optimistic about AI technology empowering their work operations, yet maintain a healthy level of trepidation for where it might lead if left unchecked. Regulation will be necessary and will come when the entire industry, made up of companies, professionals, technologists, and government, work together to define the way we engage with AI — and continue to adapt as the technology evolves.

I am a firm believer that human intelligence, thinking, and collaboration are fundamental to the success of professionals. While generative AI will have a transformational impact across all professional services, it will never replace the need for human insight and intuition when it comes to advising clients and stakeholders.

Indeed, there will be a reallocation of professional and technological resources. Training and educational programs will likewise need to be adapted to help staff oversee and capitalize on novel business models powered by these new AI solutions. But these evolutionary changes will ultimately serve to enhance the inherent capacity, potential, and range of abilities of professionals, ensuring that people remain the No. 1 asset in any organization.