Is AI really changing the legal industry?
The legal industry is at a crossroads—at least I think it may be.
Artificial intelligence (AI), with its ability to revolutionize the way contracts are negotiated and executed, the way discovery is conducted, and the way cases are analyzed, has been all the buzz in the last few months. ChatGPT, the OpenAI platform that performs all kinds of tasks, has been on a tear, taking law school exams and digesting huge amounts of copyrighted content for breakfast, in addition to being featured prominently in the background of the writers’ and actors’ strike. Despite some high profile whoopsies, like submitting “hallucinated” cases (you and I call them fake) to a federal judge (big gulp and a $10,000 fine for that unlucky lawyer later) and California regulators response to using an AI robot to fight traffic tickets (um, big NOPE), lawyers are nevertheless experimenting freely with AI. Legal tech startups pop up daily and old-line giants like Westlaw and Lexis are also diving in, baking AI features into their existing offerings.
So, can AI really make lawyers obsolete?
Probably not …at least not yet…but isn’t denial how every dystopian scenario starts?
AI robot lawyers? Not right now.
Joshua Browder, CEO of DoNotPay, an AI technology startup, found out the hard way earlier this year that the state authorities who regulate lawyers just aren’t ready for robot lawyers because…well…lawyer rules. The Company was dinged by regulators for trying to have a bot represent a consumer in a California traffic ticket case. The Company now faces a class action suit for practicing law without a license. DoNotPay is undeterred though and is pushing the boundaries, expanding into other categories to help consumers solve problems like warranties and assistance with filing refund claims.
While AI-powered legal defense (picture Rosie the Jetsons’ housekeeper in a barrister’s wig) is certainly an appealing topic and could actually help more people with what we call the “access to justice” issue (lawyers are too expensive for most people to comfortably afford), neither the technology nor the rules are ready for that just yet. So, where will AI change the legal industry? In my practice, that means with drafting and reviewing contracts.
AI will definitely make contract drafting and automation easier and ultimately less expensive.
It’s no secret that lawyers use templates as a basis for documents—templates make document preparation easier. Automated workflows (which we are working on right now) speed up the process more and AI may make automation obsolete over time. The goal is efficiency, something we are always working on. If you haven’t dabbled with AI, here is an example of a query we put into ChatGPT and the result we received in seconds.
The clause is not bad…pretty good standard fare actually, BUT you will notice the disclaimer below it and that is where lawyers are not yet “outsourceable” by the robot lawyer “in the machine.” You will note that the bot throws a red flag here about “consumer contracts” and the bot is correct, this clause won’t work for a consumer contract (which is what we asked for) and it won’t work for an employment contract and it won’t work in a few other industries I won’t bore you with here. And that my friends is the key to this discussion.
The difference between AI and lawyers…and humans.
The words themselves or the speed at which they appear isn’t really what makes a lawyer a lawyer. It’s the judgment of when to use those words and how to change them to work for a different purpose or to come up with a unique solution based on novel application of a contract or the words. It’s the experience behind the verbiage that provides the value. It’s also navigating complex relationships. The people part of the equation remains impossible to outsource to a bot unless and until they become “sentient” (not doing spooky in this blog post).
Time vs. Value
Having said that, I do think AI may finally kill the billable hour and that would be okay with me. Most law firms are still charging people for products and the products are priced by how long it takes to complete them. If it only takes seconds for the product, then the price is compressed…a lot…which could be good for the consumer and bad for lawyers who exclusively charge by the hour. Lawyers should already be thinking about this instead of kicking the can down the road. It will force all of us to focus on the “value” we bring to a client. That will also be good for the customer.
As for me, I’m embracing AI cautiously. I see the promise, but I also see the danger, particularly because we STILL haven’t dealt with the nasty and well-documented side effects of the unregulated social media circus. Just imagine the damage generative AI could do without appropriate checks and balances. I just hope it’s not too late already.