Artificial intelligence and the future of the legal profession
Updated: 6 days ago
In recent weeks, the topic of artificial intelligence has experienced a huge amount of interest. This time, it is mainly due to OpenAI’s ChatGPT tool being made available to the general public. I’ve written about this news in more general terms here.
But I wanted to look at the topic in more detail also in the broader context of my profession. More than five years ago, I wrote an article in which I addressed the question of whether lawyers are obsolete. I would like to return to this topic and have a look at it in light of recent developments in the field of artificial intelligence.
The digital lawyer
In the context of chatGPT, various examples of its use in one field or another have started to appear on social media. My social bubble composed primarily of lawyers is no exception to this. Lawyers and attorneys have therefore also started to play with this tool and are trying out what it is actually capable of.
It was with some combination of nervousness and excitement that I tested it out as well. The results are certainly admirable. For example, the chatbot can write cease & desist letters, a contract and a lawsuit. It can also offer explanations of selected legal concepts and describe selected processes. In relation to the area I focus on – brand protection – chatGPT can, for example, draft a list of goods and services for a trademark application. Such a list can be further modified by a simple command to consist, for example, only of harmonised terms accepted by the EUIPO or the USPTO, depending on the country in which you will be filing the application. It can do all this in basically any world language.
The results are admittedly not perfect, and chatGPT states this in its output (see „consult an intellectual property attorney“). However, in relation to lists of goods and services for trademark purposes, I attribute this more to the fact that the chatbot does not have access to specific databases. If it had access to the relevant databases, I believe the results would be second to none.
Lawyers won’t have anything to eat
If I start from the premise that the provision of legal services is a function of intelligence, and if the purpose of artificial intelligence is to imitate, catch up and surpass that intelligence, then it follows that any intellectual activity can in principle be fully performed by a machine. Indeed, it is already being shown, contrary to initial expectations, that artificial intelligence has conquered highly creative activities before manual ones.
I am therefore willing to accept that there is, in principle, no activity of a lawyer that could not be replaced by a machine under any circumstances. Nevertheless, I believe that AI tools do not pose as much of a threat to lawyers in the first phase as it may seem.
It seems unlikely to me that, in today’s world, the average client is prepared to take the lawyer completely out of the equation in relation to legal services, and to solve most of the matters that now form the lawyer’s agenda or require some form of legal assistance themselves using some ultimate go-to solution. No matter how user-friendly it might be.
In a more complex legal agenda, including, for example, setting a strategy or sorting out individual sub-steps within a larger task, be it litigation or commercial transactions, I think it will not be easy to do without a human lawyer for some time to come. Still, I am not saying that it is not or will not be possible. I would only venture to suggest that in this area of legal services, the judgment and control of an experienced lawyer will certainly have a high added value for some time to come.
To discuss it „in person“
In this respect, I also take into account the natural tendency of people, clients, to discuss things with someone personally. Developments after the covid pandemic have shown that the preference for face-to-face meetings is still deeply rooted in human nature, and that many clients will continue to prefer it for a long time to come. Unless we are now seeing some massive shift into the digital space in relation to consulting with a flesh-and-blood solicitor, I therefore don’t expect people to be prepared to consult a machine about their affairs to any great extent either.
That the market for legal services is generally regarded as rigid, and that people still assign a great value to face-to-face meetings, is noted by Richard Susskind. However, in his book Tomorrow’s Lawyers, he makes the case for why he thinks this will soon change and predicts major shifts in this area. But he has been saying this for about twenty years and the reality does not seem to fit that much. That is not to say that it will not happen eventually. It is just that reality is often not as fanciful as we imagine, and I suspect that it will not be in this case either.
Space for use
On the other hand, I believe that tools based on artificial intelligence will first make the work of lawyers and legal professionals much easier without depriving them of it. Although the pace at which developments in this area are moving forward is accelerating and will likely continue to accelerate, I believe that the expected transformation of the legal profession will be more gradual.
Therefore, I see ChatGPT and possibly other tools as something that can primarily be at lawyers‘ fingertips and make their work easier. After all, ChatGPT answers the question of whether artificial intelligence will replace lawyers in the next 20 years in a similar manner.
However, one-off and simpler tasks within more complex legal services, such as the preparation of contracts, C&D letters or, for example, the aforementioned trademark applications, are likely to be the first to disappear from the regular legal agenda. Or, more precisely, eligible for clients to handle them themselves. However, for the reasons mentioned above, and in particular due to a kind of natural inertia, I believe that people will continue to prefer to turn to lawyers for these matters; in turn, the lawyers will be able to offer related services to clients faster and cheaper thanks to the use of new technologies. Ideally, everyone will benefit. The client will get a quality service at a lower price, but it will still be backed by a flesh-and-blood lawyer. The lawyer, on the other hand, will be able to handle such matters faster, more efficiently and ultimately cheaper in terms of his costs.
What does it matter that there will certainly be people who will have no problem actually dealing with these matters themselves. If there are already those who are content with a contract downloaded from the internet, they will probably have no problem with a contract that is custom-made by an AI algorithm. But I don’t think they will be the majority. All the more so if new technologies make legal services more accessible.
I see a lot of room in legal-tech. More specifically, in the area of specific legal activities where AI can be further exploited.
If I take intellectual property law as an example, trademark preparation, domain disputes, but probably also patent searches, are in my opinion exactly the areas where there will be room for innovation and for new specifically oriented legal-tech solutions.
What is the end game?
However, I have conceded above that it is theoretically possible to replace lawyers entirely. Even in those areas that today still require a great deal of experience and judgement, such as litigation and transactions. The end game, therefore, is really that a lawyer or attorney will not be needed for the substantive side of legal services at all.
I don’t even venture a guess as to what timeframe is realistic in this regard. I just think, for the reasons given above, that it will not be as soon as it might seem. But let us move forward in time to the moment when this becomes a reality. Will lawyers, and attorneys in particular, still have a place in such a world?
Lawyer as a guide
As an attorney, I have no choice but to hope so. So what might our role look like in a world ruled by the general artificial intelligence?
If I build on the assumption that the willingness of people to interact with a robot (it doesn’t matter if via computer, face-to-face or perhaps in a metaverse) rather than a flesh-and-blood human will shift most slowly, then I see a place for lawyers as a kind of guides to the clients. Of course, it is the case even today. The only difference is that nowadays the lawyer is still interpreting the results of his own work (or the results of a junior colleague’s work) to the client. In the future, it could be that the lawyer will interpret results obtained only from artificial intelligence. I also imagine that they will be further needed in order to provide some additional sanity check on the outputs after all.
Moreover, in the judiciary, the willingness to allow the profession of judges or prosecutors not to be exercised by humans will, in my opinion, be much lower. I dare to say that people will not want to be judged by robots. The need for a legal interpreter, who will still bear the power to make the decisions, albeit perhaps only formally, is therefore likely to persist.
Lawyer as actor
However, when it comes to court proceedings, it is quite possible that the role of the attorney will be reduced to that of an orator. The strategy and content of the arguments presented to the court will be predetermined by artificial intelligence, and it will then be up to the lawyer to be the human face behind it and present it convincingly to the court. Will this turn lawyers into actors in a sense? Or will actors replace lawyers? Who wouldn’t want, for example, Robert De Niro to present arguments on their behalf in court? Interesting idea.
Either way, given the combination of some of the gaps that the current level of artificial intelligence, especially chatGPT, still exhibits, the inherent wariness of humans, and the rigidity of the legal profession, I would venture to say that lawyers today are still not out of the woods. But I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say that they will never be called back in the future. Certain changes are certainly ahead for the legal profession, and who knows, perhaps in the future we will become guides instead of representatives, or in a more extreme case, actors.
What do you think about the future of the legal profession? To lighten the mood, I attach a poem from chatGPT on the topic discussed in this article.