How the lawyers are reacting to AI
It all seems to come down to where you sit in the ecosystem
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Today I’ll be sharing some of the legal community’s reactions to all the AI hype, based on on and off the record conversations. In short, I’ve found that it really comes down to where you sit in the ecosystem—law firm lawyers, in house lawyers, and professors / students have all reacted differently. I’ll close today’s article with where I think all this AI is headed, and what impact I think it’ll have on legal work in the future. But first:
My friend Tom Mills and I got to know each other few years ago because we realized that there are so many similarities between law and procurement. Over the years we’ve collaborated a few times, and even made a silly Tik Tok together. This week, Tom sat down with me for a short interview for his newsletter, Procurement Bites, where we discussed diversity, change, and reform in our respective industries. I hope you check out the interview and the other wonderful articles he’s written.
Last week someone posted a thread on Twitter about how to use that free chatbot to replace your lawyer. The post received over 32 million views, leading to a bunch of different reactions from the legal community. As a self described hype man, I tried to ride the wave with my own parody thread. But after the dust had settled it made me think on why the lawyers reacted the way they did, and how it depends on where they sit in the ecosystem.
Over the past few months I’ve noticed that law firm lawyers seem most concerned about when the AI makes things up, ie. hallucinations. Many tech bros seem to dismiss the hallucination concern, and accuse the law firm lawyers of objecting out of self interest. Personally, I think that criticism misses the mark. Even though I do think that economic incentives play a role in why law firms hesitate to adopt technology.
But that’s not what’s happening here, I don’t think. Law firm lawyers specialize in identifying risks. And the problem with hallucinations is very real. So of course the risks will jump out to them. It’s all they can see. Especially when the media continues to push this narrative that AI will replace lawyers.
The reaction from the in house community was a bit different. Generally, while they’re also concerned about risk, they’re also looking for ways to leverage the power of AI. My sense is that this is a combination of being asked to “do more with less” and the fact that the businesses they support have quickly embraced AI. In house lawyers have been less skeptical. They want to move ahead cautiously, and figure out how to harness the power of AI safely.
Over the past few weeks I’ve had lots of off the record conversations (many in person, as well) with in house lawyers and legal ops professionals.They are all excited about AI. The challenges they foresee will come from corporate legal’s leadership fear of loss of control. In a few rare instances, the fear comes from outside of the legal department. At some companies, the C-level leadership is completely anti-AI because AI holds the potential to disrupt their main lines of business.
Finally, the main concern from law students and professors is — what does this mean for training and development? If AI replaces a huge chunk of legal work, how will young lawyers gain the experience they need to be successful? I spoke at Santa Clara Law earlier this week on this very topic, and my message was this: AI is not yet at the level of replacing human judgment, instead it’s an easy way to get rid of the shitwork. As I shared on Twitter:
My belief is that AI will help young lawyers learn more quickly. Before I joined Ironclad, I was at another legal tech company that used proprietary AI to auto-tag key clauses in contracts. Yes, it removed the need for a young M&A lawyer to search for all the assignment clauses, for example. But that would enable them quickly aggregate all of the assignment clauses across in one single place, and quickly notice the differences among them.
In 2019, that technology was “groundbreaking” but now almost every contracts technology company can do it (including, of course, Ironclad.) I believe with these tools, learning and development will happen much more quickly.
What will happen to the practice of law then? I believe it will change. Lawyers will no longer be gatekeepers of legal information. Instead, the practice will be more about communicating that information. I mean, if you look at the most senior lawyers at law firms and legal departments—their job has very little to do with presenting laws, rules, or regulations. It’s more about counseling, guidance, and advocacy.
Higher level work.
So expect to see less legal work take place in closed rooms in front of a computer. Less manual search and find type of work. Instead there will be more human interaction. More persuasion. More selling. The work of a lawyer will increasingly take place in the boardroom or in the courtroom. In front of real people.
That’s why I believe it’s such an exciting time for the future of the practice of law. And in the end, that’s exactly why I’m so bullish on AI, and on technology’s impact on our little corner of the world.
Berkeley Law announced an AI policy for students, apparently the first such policy among law schools. Spoiler alert: You’re not allowed to use it for exams.
WSJ (paywall) reported that tech talent is shifting from large companies to small, and also to contract work. I observed on Twitter that there are similar trends happening in legal.
Here’s a pretty good summary of what the pros and cons of using that free chatbot for contract review are. I thought it was balanced and practical.
What do you think?
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Relatedly, there is a huge opportunity for legal ops when it comes to AI. My colleague Mary O’Carroll, Chief Community Officer at Ironclad, will be speaking on some of these themes at CLOC, the premiere legal ops conference that takes place in about a month.
Lawyers particularly entrenched ones react to anything that threatens their business or authority. What they fail to recognize is the largely fictional nature of law itself - the stories told by opposite sides, the decisions based on stories created by judges, never mind the fact that the so-called legal principles applied by judges are often created by the stories or what is within them, and change over time. That does not discount, however, the risk that these programs are without any factual foundation.