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Can lawyers be replaced by software?

Not if we go by precedent, AI may, however, bring change 

Steve Lohr Published 24.04.23, 05:13 AM

More than a decade ago, lawyers were singled out as an endangered occupational species, their livelihoods at risk from advances in artificial intelligence.

But the doomsayers got ahead of themselves. While clever software has taken over some of the toil of legal work — mining mountains of legal documents for nuggets of useful information — employment in the legal profession has grown faster than the American workforce as a whole.


Today, a new AI threat looms, and lawyers may feel a bit of déjà vu. There are warnings that ChatGPT-style software could take over much of legal work. The new AI has its flaws, notably its proclivity to make things up, including fake legal citations. But proponents insist those are teething defects — and fixable. Will the pessimists finally be right?

Law is seen as perhaps most at risk from the recent advances in AI because lawyers are essentially word merchants. And the new technology can recognise and analyse words and generate text in an instant. It seems able to perform tasks that are the bread and butter of lawyers.

“That is really, really powerful,” said Robert Plotkin, an intellectual property lawyer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US. “My work and my career has been mostly writing text.”

But unless the past isn’t a guide, the impact of the new technology is more likely to be a steadily rising tide than a sudden tidal wave. New AI technology will change the practice of law, and some jobs will be eliminated, but it also promises to make lawyers and paralegals more productive, and to create new roles. That is what happened after the introduction of other work-altering technologies such as the personal computer and the Internet.

One new study, by researchers at Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, all in the US, concluded that the industry most exposed to the new AI was “legal services”. Another research report, by economists at Goldman Sachs, estimated that 44 per cent of legal work could be automated. Lawyers are only one occupation in the path of AI progress. A study by researchers at OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT, and the University of Pennsylvania found that about 80 per cent of American workers would have at least 10 per cent of their tasks affected by the latest AI software.

In 2017, Baker McKenzie, a large international law firm, set up a committee to track emerging technology and set strategy. Since then, the AI software has made steady inroads. “The reality is AI has not disrupted the legal industry,” said Ben Allgrove, the firm's its chief innovation officer.

The rapid progress in large language models — the technology engine for ChatGPT — is a significant advance, Allgrove said. Reading, analysing and summarising, he said, are fundamental legal skills. “At its best, the technology seems like a very smart paralegal, and it will improve,” he said.

Lawyers are mostly putting the technology through test runs. The issues of data protection and client confidentiality are critical in legal work. The legal profession resisted using email until information-handling rules were established.

And the software models’ tendency to make up things is alarming — and an invitation to malpractice suits — in a profession that hinges on finding facts.

To help address those concerns, law firms often use software that runs on top of something like ChatGPT and is fine-tuned for legal work. Load in a case’s documents and ask the software to draft deposition questions, for example, and in a few minutes it will spit out a list of pertinent questions, lawyers say.

Successfully using the AI requires ample relevant data and questions that are detailed and specific, Borden said. More open-ended questions, like what’s the most important evidence, or who are the most credible witnesses, are still a struggle for the AI.

The new AI is a challenge to the status quo. Higher productivity means fewer billable hours, yet hourly billing remains the dominant business model in legal work.

“There is a huge opportunity for AI in legal services, but the professional culture is very conservative,” said Raj Goyle, an adviser to legal tech companies and a Harvard Law School graduate. “The future is coming, but it will not be as fast as some predict.”

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