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AI Won't Replace Lawyers... Or, Will It?
My perhaps too candid thoughts about AI's effect on the legal profession
Trigger warning: today’s post is not for the faint-hearted. Read at your own risk.
A common mantra among legal technology vendors and AI thought leaders goes something like this: “AI won’t replace lawyers, it will help make lawyers more productive and free them up to practice at the top of their license, to engage in higher value and more interesting work.” Or, a more recent revision of this balm is “AI won’t replace lawyers, but lawyers using AI will replace lawyers that don’t.”
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The motivation behind these words is, of course, to appeal to the customer and allay their fears. And, if you asked me if AI was going to replace lawyers even a year ago, I would likely have told you something similar.
But, I gotta tell you: AI is going to replace lawyers.
Not every single lawyer. But a great deal of what lawyers do will be replaced by AI and there’s not enough upskilling in the world to avoid that.
And, it’s already begun.
Just like people use Google to seek out legal information and advice, they are using ChatGPT right now to get answers to their legal questions and to draft legal documents. This is not in the future, this is right now. The genie is out of the bottle. The horse has left the barn.
I’ve heard too many panelists and audience questions at conferences frame the discussion as if we have any control over AI’s dissemination of legal information, advice and documents to the public. We don’t.
Yes, OpenAI has ChatGPT provide a nice little disclaimer that ChatGPT is only a large language model and not a lawyer and to consult a lawyer for proper advice and counsel, yadda, yadda… but a lot of times it just provides an analysis of their situation and/or drafts up an example of a legal document that they can use.
To which most lawyers I have spoken with object that ChatGPT gets a lot of things wrong, like legal citations or that the law of the wrong jurisdiction is applied or [insert the shortcoming that comes to mind].
And, I agree.
ChatGPT in the wild (as I refer to the consumer version of ChatGPT, chat.openai.com) is particularly well-suited to mislead those who are not legally trained into believing in the accuracy of the response provided because it states the responses confidently and due to the fact that a knowledge imbalance prevents a user from being able to see the cracks in the facade (errors) that a legal practitioner would notice right away.
Unfortunately, there are at least a few problems with this line of reasoning:
Users don’t care;
Users have had enough with not being able to get answers to the legal questions they have and are too broke (80% of them can’t afford a lawyer) or frustrated to hire a lawyer to help them; and
The answers users get are ‘good enough’ for them.
Certainly, there are a few years of arbitrage: where lawyers who employ AI will have a distinct advantage over those who don’t. But, it’s undeniable that a lot of the bread and butter practice areas, like corporate law and in house counsel work, divorce, personal injury, criminal law, bankruptcy, estate planning, real estate, immigration, and employment law will have large swaths of work automated leading to the consolidation of law firms and the growth of alternative, consumer-facing, good enough AI legal providers. Think LegalZoom + ChatGPT, able to offer most legal services at scale.
And, yes, there will still be a place for court advocacy, persuasion and negotiation, but for how long? Keep in mind, it’s not that a skilled robot is going to replace trial lawyers. It’s far more likely that automation and AI will be developed to bypass the need to go to court in the first place. It’s already happening in British Columbia1.
Lawyers sometimes point to the importance of human empathy and their ability to read their client’s state of mind and credibility and the importance of a handshake and looking their clients in the eyes. But, if a recent study2, comparing ChatGPT and Doctor responses to patient questions is any indication of professional empathy, we lawyers as a profession have a lot of work to do.
Many of the defensive positions that we as lawyers have believed that we could fall back to upon the advance of AI (empathy, accuracy, judgment, etc.) are quickly being deconstructed, analyzed and reproduced or eliminated by AI. The nature of our work is that we trade in knowledge and information. It’s been our strength but is also a weakness when AI empowers access to that same expertise at scale.
Lawyers are no longer gatekeepers. There is no gate.
It brings me back to a quote that I’ve often used at the beginning of my presentations to lawyers about ChatGPT:
“It's like you wake up to the news of the first nuclear explosion and you don't know yet what to think about it but you know the world will never be the same again.”3
I like the quote because it captures the visceral feel that I and many of you felt on first interacting with a fluent, intelligent AI in the form of ChatGPT. It was an awe-inspiring moment that we had been waiting for, and been promised, for many, many years.
But now it’s becoming clearer how the world will never be the same and it’s even more important for us to quickly find our place in this new, undiscovered country.
British Columbia’s Civil Resolution Tribunal has specialized expertise to decide claims for fault and personal injury and property damage of up to $50,000 for accidents after April 1, 2019. url: https://civilresolutionbc.ca/blog/update-on-the-crts-jurisdiction-over-motor-vehicle-injury-disputes/. See also https://civilresolutionbc.ca/solution-explorer/vehicle-accidents/
Ayers JW, Poliak A, Dredze M, et al. Comparing Physician and Artificial Intelligence Chatbot Responses to Patient Questions Posted to a Public Social Media Forum. JAMA Intern Med. Published online April 28, 2023. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2023.1838. url: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2804309
Shital Shaw, Principal Research Engineer, Microsoft Research. url: https://twitter.com/sytelus/status/1598523136177508356?s=20