The ethical obligations of lawyers to promote the public interest is what sets the legal profession apart from businesses and commercial interests. It is also what distinguishes lawyers from technology,” says Professor Michael Legg.  

In Prof. Legg and Dr Felicity Bell’s book ‘Artificial Intelligence and the Legal Profession’, lawyers’ ethical values are seen as a point of difference compared to an AI legal product or service without a lawyer. This means the lawyer must be competent, and act in the client’s best interests.

“This is most evident in the content of the fiduciary duties owed by lawyer to client. In one word, the obligation is loyalty.”

Equally, the legal profession plays a critical role in the administration of justice and in the maintenance of the rule of law.

“Lawyers play an institutional role which is essential to a free and democratic society,” Prof. Legg says.

The advent of operational AI in law will undoubtedly bring change but Dr Bell says there’s also the opportunity for the legal profession to improve legal services, while maintaining core values that benefit society.

“What we demonstrate in the book is that there's a number of functions – which previously may have been done by the human lawyer – where you can now use technology, because it's more cost effective and efficient.

“It also has the capacity to use extraordinary amounts of data and can be more accurate than a human being. In those areas, lawyers should take advantage of AI, because it will make the provision of legal services cheaper and more accurate,” Dr Bell says.

How can AI be useful to lawyers?

Prof. Legg and Dr Bell present the challenges and opportunities from AI and its impact on six different aspects of legal work where it’s being adopted: litigation, transactional, dispute resolution, regulation and compliance, criminal law and legal advice and strategy. 

“The legal profession needs to learn where AI is best put to use in legal practice and know about the ramifications and potential reskilling required for the workforce. In some ways, it is an educative function.”

Prof. Legg and Dr Bell argue that AI will redefine the legal profession and that we need to consider a future where AI is injected into the law.

“When focusing on dispute resolution, AI can provide a collection of tools that gives access to free legal information that can be tailored to a person’s dispute. It can also facilitate various dispute resolution steps” Dr Bell says.

“The lawyer must operate within this new regime, which means understanding how the system functions so that they can provide complementary services where needed. There will also be clients who will need assistance in using the AI tools, and areas of the law where AI alone cannot navigate the complexity involved. Lawyers will need to adapt,” Prof. Legg says.

AI products can also be used to ensure compliance in areas such as privacy and anti-money laundering. Another example is how it can be used in document review during discovery in litigation, or in due diligence in transactions.

“When you look at discovery, we have what's called technology-assisted review. It is effectively a form of supervised machine learning and it’s important that lawyers know how that technology works,” he says.

“Lawyers also have a role to play to ensure the AI product is complying with the law, rather than thinking we're complying with the law just because we have this technology in place.”

How will this impact the future of the legal profession?

One advantage for lawyers is that AI can take away what's often described as the grunt work.

“With the help of AI carrying out the grunt work, lawyers can shift their focus to tasks where they can add value through their skill set. This in turn, will benefit clients more as they are paying their lawyers to provide them with the advice and advocacy they need. They are not paying their lawyers to review documents,” Dr Bell says.

Legal services can therefore be made cheaper and more efficient with the help of AI.

“We need to be training lawyers to understand how AI works, and also be able to interpret its outputs. We need to know its limitations, weaknesses, biases, so that lawyers can use AI as a tool, and also be able to assess outputs.

“The aim is not to have lawyers become computer scientists. It's to have lawyers be able to talk with and engage with the computer scientists and the engineers who created the AI products.”

Any disadvantages about incorporating AI into the law?

There is a big difference between lawyers and AI. Although AI can help to provide people with legal information and empowering them to a degree – there will be instances where the human factor is needed; especially in family law, criminal law and immigration law. Lawyers need to understand AI’s limitations and biases, and in some circumstances must be able to challenge its use where it could be contributing to unjust outcomes.

“The person who is the subject of the legal system and bound by its outcomes, really wants to have another human by their side, rather than an AI product. Replacing a human being with AI will discount their experience with the legal system. It must be recognised that removing lawyers from the legal process will imposes costs that can be harmful to society,” Prof. Legg says.

However, AI can be used in smaller cases.

“In the area of dispute resolution, AI can facilitate the resolution of small claims, including those for which it would never have been economical to obtain traditional legal assistance.

“But in more high-profile cases, sensitive or complex disputes – the human advocate, strategic-thinker, creative and compassionate lawyer will be needed. The access to justice that AI provides in this context may be harmful to a client who does not have someone to advocate for them and ensure a fair process,” he says.

“Lawyers have the ethical responsibility and the duty to the administration of justice – which is to uphold the rule of law. I think the true position is that in the future, you will have this sort of AI-enhanced lawyer. It'll be a case of bringing the two together to achieve the best outcome.”

Professor Michael Legg is the Director of the Law Society of NSW Future of Law and Innovation in the Profession research stream (FLIPstream) at UNSW Faculty of Law & Justice.  Dr Felicity Bell is a research fellow with FLIPstream.

Dawn Lo