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 — searching, reviewing and 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, with its humanlike language fluency, 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 in a nascent technology — and fixable.
Will the pessimists finally be right?
Law is seen as the lucrative profession perhaps most at risk from the recent advances in AI because lawyers are essentially word merchants. And the new technology can recognize and analyze words and generate text in an instant. It seems ready and 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. “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, concluded that the industry most exposed to the new AI was “legal services.” Another research report, by economists at Goldman Sachs, estimated that 44% of legal work could be automated. Only the work of office and administrative support jobs, at 46%, was higher.
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% of American workers would have at least 10% of their tasks affected by the latest AI software.
The legal profession has been identified as a ripe target for AI automation in the past. In 2011, one article in a longer series in The New York Times on the progress in AI (titled “Smarter Than You Think”) focused on the likely impact on legal work. Its headline: “Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software.”
But the march of AI in law turned out to be more measured. AI mainly identified, sorted and classified words in documents. The technology’s tools served more as aides than as replacements — and the same could be true this time.
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, a partner at the firm and its chief innovation officer.
The rapid progress in large language models — the technology engine for ChatGPT — is a significant advance, Allgrove said. Reading, analyzing and summarizing, he said, are fundamental legal skills. “At its best, the technology seems like a very smart paralegal, and it will improve,” he said.
The impact, Allgrove said, will be to force everyone in the profession, from paralegals to $1,000-an-hour partners, to move up the skills ladder to stay ahead of the technology. The work of humans, he said, will increasingly be to focus on developing industry expertise, exercising judgment in complex legal matters, and offering strategic guidance and building trusted relationships with clients.
Technology has eliminated large numbers of jobs in recent years, and not just robots taking over factories. Personal computers, productivity software and the internet have made office work more efficient, replacing many workers.
Office and administrative support occupations, including secretaries, clerks, bill collectors and office assistants, employ 1.3 million fewer workers than in 1990, according to an analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Labor Department forecasts further decline, with 880,000 fewer jobs in those occupations by 2031.
“Technology is a driver, and there are large changes, but they tend to come gradually over a decade or more,” said Michael Wolf, the division chief for occupational employment projections at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The bureau’s current outlook is that jobs for lawyers and paralegals will continue to grow faster than the labor market as a whole. Wolf is closely watching the arrival of the new AI software, but he said it was too early to assess what the technology’s long-term impact would be.
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 confidently is alarming — and an invitation to malpractice suits — in a profession that hinges on finding and weighing 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. The tailored software has been developed by legal tech startups such as Casetext and Harvey.
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.
“For the things it can do well, it does them stunningly well,” said Bennett Borden, a partner and the chief data scientist at DLA Piper, a large corporate law firm.
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.
Lawyers at big firms have seen significant time savings for certain jobs and view the technology as a tool to make teams of lawyers and paralegals more productive. Sole practitioners see the technology more as a partner in practice.
Valdemar L. Washington, a lawyer in Flint, Michigan, was selected last fall to test the software from Casetext, called CoCounsel, which works with the latest ChatGPT technology.
Washington used the software in a suit against the city of Flint claiming that residents were overcharged on water and sewer rates and service fees. He loaded more than 400 pages of documents, and the software quickly reviewed them and wrote a summary that pointed him to an important gap in the defense’s case.
The program did in a few minutes what would have taken him several hours, he said.
“It’s a real game changer,” Washington said.
But how much the legal profession will change, and how soon, is uncertain.
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. AI should increase the pressure from corporate clients to pay law firms for work done rather than time spent. But top corporate legal officers — the customers — are typically former partners and associates in big law firms, steeped in the same traditions.
“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.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.