The Future of Law: How AI is Redefining Legal Practice

Ever the traditionalists, law firms have a reputation for being somewhat hesitant to embrace new technologies. However, as artificial intelligence continues to dominate headlines, we aim to investigate its impact on the legal profession and find out what they can anticipate from these technological advancements.

Causing A Rethink On How Law Is Taught

AI has already stirred debate in academia, prompting several senior legal professionals to advocate for changes driven by this evolving technology. A prominent law professor advocated for AI chatbots to be taught to aspiring lawyers, whilst a Barrister called for online exams to be scrapped due to 1 in 6 using ChatBots to cheat. Oxford and Cambridge went so far as to ban ChatGPT entirely, just as other universities chose to embrace it.

It’s no surprise that this has sparked such a debate. The AI has already proven itself capable of overcoming several hurdles that would typically stand in the way of qualifying as a solicitor. These feats include passing the Watson Glaser test (a critical thinking assessment favoured by City Law Firms), achieving a C+ on the American Bar Exam (albeit compared to the average student’s B+) and narrowly missing out on a passing mark on the SQE1.

When AI can ‘think’ critically, pass legal exams, and compose essays in a fraction of the time it takes students, it’s no surprise that more consideration is being given to how law is taught. However, it’s still to be determined whether AI will ultimately prove to be a help or hindrance to legal education.

Helping With Tedious Tasks and Improving Efficiency

Allen & Overy is breaking new ground through ‘Harvey’, an OpenAI application that’s being used to assist lawyers in conducting due diligence and research. Although Harvey is still in its beta testing phase, it can automate various legal tasks, including contract analysis, due diligence, litigation, and regulatory compliance. It helps alleviate some of the tedium associated with these tasks by generating insights, recommendations, and predictions, enabling lawyers to work smarter, rather than harder.

Some significant concerns have been raised: does Harvey have access to client data? While a press release from A&O suggested that it might, they have since clarified that “maintaining client confidentiality is a key priority” and “Harvey will not interact with client data until we know it is safe to do so.”

So, it seems Harvey can help with some of the tedium, but its scope is limited for now. Moreover, at Allen & Overy, lawyers can at least find reassurance; the Financial Times reports that they “insisted the technology would not replace any staff”. Other firms are also jumping on the AI bandwagon, the latest being PwC. The multinational company signed up for a 12-month contract with startup Harvey, making similar promises of not replacing their lawyers.

But Harvey isn’t the only AI tool out there. Another contender in the field is Gavel, formerly Documate, an AI system for document automation. Gavel claims that it “drastically reduces costs of legal services by automating repeated tasks” thereby saving lawyers time and law firms money by eliminating the tedious repetitive tasks from a lawyer’s to-do list.

Several in-house teams have sought to try to reduce their legal costs by calling for fixed fee arrangements. LexisNexis reported in a 2021 survey that 43% of law firms were offering alternative fee arrangements, an increase from 28% in 2020. Those transitioning from billable hours and utilising AI tools can better prioritise their time, maximising profitability when working on fixed fee matters. As exemplified by Georgia Dawson of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in her statement that removing the billable hour model “supports a drive towards efficiency, a drive towards the use of technology and it can help to support a better focus on mental health, well-being and diversity in the profession as well.”

So lawyers can look forward to the more mundane aspects of their work being taken off their plates and fed to AI chatbots or automated instead, all with the knowledge that their jobs are safe (with A&O and PwC at least).

Eliminating Gender Bias From Contracts

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion have become massive concerns for companies, now more so than ever before. One might presume that gender bias is a thing of the past when considering the various waves of feminism making their way across the internet. However, data from the open-source legal template library Genie AI showed that “63% of contracts between 2017-2022 still used gendered terms”.

Whether it’s pronouns like “he” and “his” or titles like “salesman” or “chairman”, updating a contract to remove gendered language can be costly. Because of this, contracts are 88% more likely to say “himself” rather than “herself”.

Genie AI is taking affirmative action against this bias by launching 1,500 gender-neutral templates for free and signalling gender neutrality in its contract library. However, it’s not just Genie AI making changes. ‘Magic Circle’ firm Linklaters is eliminating contract bias from their contracts with Microsoft Azure Cognitive Search – a “cloud search service with built-in AI capabilities that enrich all types of information to help you identify and explore relevant content at scale”. They first trialled this with documents relating to Brexit, initially estimating that it would take them 2,500 hours to review and make amendments. However, Azure reduced this timeframe to just one week.

Could AI replace a Lawyer altogether?

Well, not quite. But with the rising use of AI, this could be on the horizon as its impact is now being felt on all levels of the legal system.

Charles Russell Speechlys already has discussed (and dismissed) concerns about conveyancers being replaced by AI, but with updates constantly being rolled out, this could be a “watch this space” scenario. AI proved it could handle straightforward questions, but would fall when it came to questions about Stamp Duty Land Tax; its advice would be incomplete or inaccurate. Ultimately concluding that, while AI was a long way off from replacing a conveyancer, it still has a “valuable part to play in modern conveyancing practices”.

In the US, the launch of an investigation into the impact of AI on the legal profession by the American Bar Association emphasises this potential peril on a larger scale, shifting from overturning smaller crimes to the possibility of redefining the act of practising the law entirely. ABA President, Mary Smith, states that  “at a time when both private and public sector organisations are moving rapidly to develop and use artificial intelligence, we are called again to lead to address both the promise and the peril of emerging technologies.”

But don’t let yourself get carried away with it, as one lawyer in the US did. AI is only ever as good as the commands you give it. Using it for legal research can result in made-up cases or providing hypotheticals and fake quotes, so use it with extreme caution. It’s not quite there yet when it comes to outright replacing lawyers, as demonstrated sensibly by a British judge last week, whose landmark speech on the positives of “jolly useful” AI boiled down to a minor prompt, as he asked it only to summarise a certain area of UK law with which he was already familiar.

Ultimately, the capabilities mentioned above are the tip of the iceberg of AI’s potential, and time will tell of its effect on the legal profession.

Worried about being replaced by AI? Don’t be, it’s still a long way off. However, now is a great time to develop new skills by embracing an interest in technology, as it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter it further in your career.

If you want expert career advice, reach out to Hayley Rose. Or check out the Recruitment Room where we share our hints and tips for navigating your way through job applications and interviews.

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