Will AI Replace My Law Degree?

No, robolawyers aren't taking over the legal profession, but AI does promise to make life easier for attorneys and offer greater access to legal services.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on July 14, 2023
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  • Artificial intelligence already has become a valuable tool within the legal profession.
  • Large language models and other forms of AI can perform rudimentary legal tasks quickly and efficiently.
  • Law schools are offering courses in AI, preparing students for emerging realities.
  • AI cannot replace the human element in the practice of law and doesn't promise to displace lawyers anytime soon.

Assuming you're thinking about law school, have already enrolled, or recently graduated, the thought has likely crossed your mind: Will artificial intelligence (AI) render my law degree useless? Will lawyers be replaced by bots equally capable and decidedly cheaper?

As with many professions, AI threatens to reshape the practice of law, changing how jobs are done and perhaps eliminating some in the process.

At the same time, this emerging technology promises to improve the legal profession and aid those who seek its services.

Many of these changes, in fact, have already begun.

How AI Is Changing the Practice of Law

The application of AI technology to the practice of law is hardly new. Two prominent case law databases lawyers consult for legal research, Westlaw and LexisNexis, leverage AI using large language models, much like ChatGPT. This application of machine learning has been in use since the late 1980s, notes professor Eric Talley of Columbia Law School.

Similar tools have been developed more recently. Lawgeex uses AI technology to review and prepare contracts. Westlaw Edge's Quick Check can analyze legal briefs, pointing out weaknesses in legal arguments.

And Harvey, built with the same technology powering ChatGPT, helps lawyers produce legal documents and conduct legal research. Major firms already are making use of this new tech partner.

What other tasks can AI help lawyers perform? It can search for patent, trademark, and copyright infringements. It can analyze large volumes of case law and statutes to identify relevant precedents. It can enable attorneys to stay abreast of compliance requirements and regulations.

It also can assist with discovery, scanning databases to obtain information relevant to a case or claim; facilitate due diligence by identifying required documents; and help determine the viability of litigation and the value of a potential lawsuit.

AI, in short, is becoming today's new robolawyer. ChatGPT even passed the bar exam last year, earning a score in the 90th percentile.

Law schools and their students are certainly paying attention to these developments, preparing for a legal world infiltrated by AI.

New courses at Columbia, Harvard, and Stanford explore issues such as algorithmic bias and civil rights, liability for accidents caused by self-driving cars, and the regulation of AI applications and platforms, notes The Wall Street Journal.

What's more, law students are using AI when writing papers and preparing for tests. That may or may not constitute plagiarism, though Columbia's Talley avoids giving take-home exams in an effort to circumvent temptation.

Three years ago, Yale Law School introduced a course titled “Artificial Intelligence, the Legal Profession, and Procedure.” Faculty continue to update the syllabus weekly to keep pace with this rapidly developing technology.

AI has already changed the practice of law, professor William Eskridge Jr. told Yale Law School Today. It's changing the structure of the legal profession, the procedures followed by the courts, and forms of adjudication. Our students understand they're going to be living with this...

Does AI Threaten to Replace Lawyers?

Given all this automation, could AI actually replace lawyers? No, not entirely, but it might reduce the number of positions law firms fill.

Because AI can handle some of the routine work done by junior-level employees, law firms might not require as many associates and paralegals, notes Fairfax, a professional services consulting firm.

Indeed, a Goldman Sachs study estimates 44% of legal work can be automated through AI.

Lawyers will have to write less, read less, search less and, frankly, also think less, wrote Niels Martin Brochner in Forbes. They will become hyper-augmented, which might turn them into overqualified project managers. When the individual lawyer becomes more efficient, it should, in theory, mean that we will need fewer of them. So let's face it: Some lawyers will lose their jobs.

At the same time, however, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the number of jobs for attorneys will grow by 10% from 2021-2031, faster than the average for all professions.

Thankfully for lawyers, AI promises to complement and expedite their work more than replace it, most experts say. Tasks such as drafting contracts, preparing court documents, and writing legal summaries for clients will become less burdensome and time-consuming, notes John Villasenor of The Brookings Institution.

In turn, lawyers can focus their attention on more complex work.

Robots are doing some of these repetitive, mundane tasks, said Mark Cohen, founder and CEO of Legal Mosaic LLC. This does not mean that those lawyers who were doing those tasks are going to be out of a job, but they are going to be liberated to do other types of things.

Among those other types of things is learning how to harness AI's potential.

Lawyers must develop new skills related to AI's role in the legal process, including knowing how to choose the right AI tool for a particular task [and] knowing how to construct the right queries and evaluate the relevance, quality, and accuracy of the responses..., Villasenor argues.

AI Can't Replace the Human Element

Despite AI's incursion into the legal world, the work of lawyers will remain vital, Villasenor asserts. Technology won't replace the human element. It can't argue before a jury, nor can it provide compassionate counsel to clients.

At its core, law is a social construct, contends Texas A&M law professor Milan Markovic, and large language models cannot comprehend the complex nuances of that construct.

AI bots are good at building on what has already been done before but don't have the creativity and abstract thinking necessary to fully address many legal needs, Markovic told Texas A&M Today.

While AI tools are proficient at synthesizing existing information, Columbia's Talley explains that a lot of what lawyers are doing is predicting what is going to happen in an unfamiliar situation.

What AI can do, however, is provide the public with ready access to basic legal services. Brochner, in Forbes, relays a story of someone who used ChatGPT to evaluate a contract and sent the results to his attorneys for their review. That initial step saved him 30% on his legal bill.

More people being served by the judicial system is what Aron Solomon calls the best-case scenario for AI. Writing in Fortune, he notes the vast majority of low-income Americans receive inadequate or no legal assistance when needed. AI can become a catalyst to help more people access justice, he writes.

While it's clear that AI won't entirely replace lawyers — at least for now — it's equally clear that these technological advancements are revolutionizing the legal profession and reshaping the law school experience.

We're trying to prepare the next generation of lawyers to think about the emerging legal issues that what we call the AI ecosystem is going to pose to them, said Iria Giuffrida, a visiting law professor at William & Mary Law School, and to all of us, for that matter.