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I want to explore a long held belief (bias?), that you can have it cheap, you can have it fast, or you can have it good, but you can’t have all three. Is this truism still true? Is it a relic of a bygone era dominated by a scarcity mindset? Does AI make abundance the rule rather than an exception? And, how will this impact the legal profession?

If this sounds interesting at all to you, read on…

Building a Mindset: Iron Triangle

You can have better, you can have cheaper or faster; pick two. This practical insight has been dubbed the “Iron Triangle.”1 In essence, it promulgates a scarcity viewpoint, but one that reflects a practical insight. That, you can make a product or service cheaper and faster, but it won’t be better. Or, you can make it better and cheaper, but it won’t be faster. This has been true historically because the optimization for cheap and fast meant you had to cut corners on quality. 

The concept of the iron triangle has evolved from these assumptions:

  • You can develop something quickly and of high quality, but it will be very costly.

  • You can develop something quickly and cheaply, but it will be of low quality.

  • You can develop something high quality and low cost, but it will take a long time.

Iron Triangle Illustrated

For example, let’s say that you were building a car and you wanted to manufacture it cheaply and quickly.

You could spend less money to manufacture the car, but the lower investment of capital would naturally mean that the materials and building techniques used would be of lesser quality. Instead of air bags, just rely on seat belts. Instead of safety glass, rely exclusively on plate glass. Instead of multiple weld points, only use a handful of screws. (Think: Boeing 737 Max door panel blowout, resulting from missing four key bolts.)2 This approach will certainly save money. 

You could produce the car more quickly as a consequence of using lesser resources because the process wouldn’t take as long. Installing air bags takes more time, precision and design work. Air bags are a complicated mix of plastic, fabric, explosive charge and computer software and hardware. Seat belts are fabric and a buckle. Now, repeat this same hardware replacement multiple times, for dozens of features, and you will have significant time and cost savings. 

Given the speed, as I’ve described, with which a lower quality vehicle can be produced, naturally the car will not be “better,” in the sense of being safer to use or more reliable. In fact, the opposite will likely be true. The car will be more dangerous to operate, especially in the event of an accident where the driver can only rely on safety restraints but not air bags to protect her, and lead to loss of life and limb. Likewise, the car will not be as reliable because, due to the cost cutting, it will likely break down more often – screws loosen, welds fail, etc.

And this triple constraint is not limited only to physical products, but also finds its way into software as well. An mobile app may be created cheaply and quickly by using programmers from Eastern Europe. The cost savings partly from the arbitrage of using lower cost, quality programming talent from a less expensive market, but also from keeping the scope of the product limited. Let’s say it’s a dating app, but to cut corners on resource usage and cost, images are not allowed, only text description. 

Legal Work: Better, Cheaper, Faster

Better (Quality)

Quality in legal work refers to the thoroughness, accuracy, and effectiveness of the legal representation or advice. High-quality legal work can significantly impact the outcome of legal proceedings, the robustness of legal agreements, and the protection of client rights and interests as well as the thoughtfulness and judgment of the lawyer. Quality often requires in-depth research, meticulous document preparation, experienced judgment, and strategic litigation skills.

Cheaper (Cost)

Cost in legal services pertains to the fees charged by attorneys for their work. Legal services can be expensive, reflecting factors like the attorney’s experience, the complexity of the case, the length of time required to resolve legal matters, and the operational costs of a legal practice. Clients often seek more affordable legal services to minimize expenses, which can influence their choice of attorney or legal strategy.

Faster (Time)

Time refers to the speed with which legal services are delivered. Clients may require quick legal responses due to pressing deadlines, the need to mitigate risks, or the desire to resolve disputes and achieve legal objectives promptly. Faster legal services may require prioritizing a client’s work, efficient case management, and sometimes, the utilization of more resources.

Iron Triangle Applied to Legal Work

Better and Cheaper, but Not Faster

When attorneys focus on providing high-quality legal services at a lower cost, the time aspect may suffer. This scenario is common in public interest law or services offered by non-profits, where the emphasis is on offering the best possible legal advice and representation to underserved populations while keeping costs low. In such cases, attorneys might take on fewer cases or spend more time on each case to maintain quality, leading to longer timelines.

Better and Faster, but Not Cheaper

In scenarios where clients require swift and high-quality legal services, such as in urgent corporate transactions, high-stakes litigation, or when facing immediate legal crises, attorneys can deliver by working intensively and leveraging their expertise. This approach often involves prioritizing a client’s work, possibly working overtime or allocating more resources to the case. However, this level of service comes at a higher cost due to the premium on rapid, high-quality outcomes.

Cheaper and Faster, but Not Better

This combination is often sought in routine legal matters or when clients are highly sensitive to costs and timelines. Legal services might be streamlined through standardization (using templates for legal documents, for example) or by delegating work to less experienced lawyers or paralegals. While this can make legal services more affordable and quicker, the quality of the work might not meet the highest standards, potentially overlooking nuanced or complex legal issues.

Will AI Break the Iron Triangle?

Impact on Quality (Better)

Generative AI can enhance the quality of legal work by providing more accurate, up-to-date, and comprehensive legal research at a fraction of the time it would take a human to do the same thing. AI can analyze vast quantities of legal documents, case law, and statutes to offer insights and recommendations, potentially increasing the precision and effectiveness of legal arguments and strategies. Moreover, as AI models become more sophisticated, they can be trained to understand and predict legal outcomes with a high degree of accuracy, thus improving the overall quality of legal advice and representation.

Impact on Cost (Cheaper)

The cost of legal services could significantly decrease with the adoption of AI technologies. AI can automate routine and time-consuming tasks such as document review, legal research, and even some aspects of client counseling and case filing. This automation reduces the need for extensive billable hours by legal professionals, thus lowering the cost of legal services, and possibly eradicating the billable hour as a viable and ethically-defensible business model.3 Additionally, as AI technology advances and becomes more widespread, the cost of utilizing these technologies is likely to decrease due to economies of scale and technological improvements, making high-quality legal services more accessible to a broader range of clients. (Think of how OpenAI seems to reduce the cost of its models with each new release.)4

Impact on Time (Faster)

Generative AI can drastically reduce the time required to perform legal tasks. For example, creating written responses to discovery requests with generative AI eliminates the drudgery of copying and pasting hundreds of objections and summarizing and cross-referencing reams of medical and chiropractic records and notes.5 Automation and advanced data analysis capabilities enable rapid processing of information, quick generation of documents, and immediate identification of relevant legal precedents and regulations. This acceleration of legal processes can benefit clients needing timely legal responses and support, thereby enhancing the responsiveness and efficiency of legal services.

The Flywheel of Optimization

The notion of a flywheel of optimization highlights how improvements in AI can create a self-reinforcing cycle: as AI models get better, they not only become more efficient and capable but also cheaper to use. This dynamic has the potential to upend the traditional Iron Triangle by making it possible to achieve better, cheaper, and faster legal services simultaneously. The continuous enhancement of foundation models means that the legal profession could see an ongoing increase in the quality, affordability, and speed of legal services, challenging the traditional trade-offs that have defined the industry.

Potential Limitations and Concerns

While the prospects are promising, there are several considerations and potential limitations to the impact of AI on legal work:

  • Ethical and Regulatory Concerns: The use of AI in legal work raises questions about confidentiality, data security, and the potential for bias in AI-generated advice or predictions. (We’ve already seen this in the Google Gemini fiasco.)6 Regulatory frameworks will need to evolve to address these issues.

  • Human Judgment and Interpretation: Despite AI’s advancements, the nuanced understanding, ethical reasoning, and strategic judgment of experienced legal professionals remain crucial, particularly in complex or novel legal matters.

  • Access and Inequality: While AI has the potential to make legal services cheaper and more accessible, there’s also the risk of widening the gap between those who can access cutting-edge AI solutions and those who cannot.

Closing Thoughts

The integration of AI into the legal profession promises to transcend the traditional constraints of the Iron Triangle, offering a future where legal services can be better, cheaper, and faster without compromising on any front. However, realizing this potential requires a proactive and strategic approach from lawyers. By embracing technological advancements, focusing on value-added services, reinventing business models, maintaining ethical and regulatory vigilance, and fostering adaptability and innovation, lawyers and legal practitioners can navigate this transformative era successfully. It’s no small order, but it’s the only way for lawyers to stay relevant in these changing times. The future of the legal profession will be shaped by those who can leverage these trends to enhance their practice, better serve their clients, and contribute to the broader justice system in a rapidly changing world.

Let’s make that change!

By the way, if you’d like to learn more about how how AI will impact the legal profession, I’ve launched a free 5-part webinar series, “Generative AI for Lawyers: Empowering Solo and Small Firms.” You can learn more about it here.


Atkinson, Roger (December 1999). “Project management: cost, time and quality, two best guesses and a phenomenon, its time to accept other success criteria”. International Journal of Project Management. 17 (6): 337–342,


Boeing 737 MAX 9 door plug bolts appeared to be missing on Alaska jet, NTSB says, Reuters, February 6, 2024,


Why this time it’s different: How generative AI may finally kill the billable hour, Canadian Lawyer, February 9, 2024,


OpenAI releases new models and lowers API pricing, AINews, January 26, 2024,

5, AI Discovery Response Creator,


Google apologizes for ‘missing the mark’ after Gemini generated racially diverse Nazis, February 21, 2024,