William J. Connell, Esq., M.Ed., Attorney at Law North Smithfield, Megan Hamlin-Black, Government Documents Librarian, Rhode Island
Let's be frank, Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be a scary thing. The concept of machines that think has been around in science fiction for quite a while. Think of HAL, the supercomputer of the 1968 film 2001 - A Space Odyssey, who ultimately turned against his astronaut companions and became a cold-blooded killer.1 Or. recall the tormented monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, when the monster says, "You are my creator, but I am your master" (admittedly, the creature was a compilation of human parts, but you get the concept).2 If you are an attorney, or preparing to become one, you probably have heard speculation of whether AI will replace lawyers, and if so, how. Understandably, this can be a cause for concern. What is lesser known is the impact this has on formal legal education, and how the legal education is adjusting to address the changing legal landscape. This article explores the emergence of AI technology into the legal profession and offers insights as to how it can be addressed by law schools.
AI in the Legal Profession and Law Students
There seems to be a conflict between the pace that innovation occurs in the practice of law versus the speed it occurs in technology, especially in the case of AI technology for legal research tools. The legal practice is predominantly a prescriptive field as it focuses on legal precedent, making room for innovation, a sometimes arduous and slow process. AI legal technology companies seeking to break into the field and become as ubiquitous as Westlaw or LexisNexis move exponentially faster than the profession. For instance, in the past year, ROSS Intelligence has introduced new practices of law to its AI databases. Their website now states that "ROSS' scope of coverage now encompasses American case law from all practice areas" and all state statutes and regulations. Their website represents that firms using ROSS reported that they experienced finding more legal authorities and using less time to do so, all of which increases efficiency.3 The increasing speed of technology innovation advancing to AI legal technology tools arguably threatens the status quo. This technology could be seen as a danger to the practice of law, which is interesting since the notion that the practice of law is in decline as a profession has been discussed since at least the mid-1990s.4 The focus of that discussion was often on the quality of life as a lawyer. This is still a concern as the legal profession has remained relatively unchanged; however, in the last couple of years, legal technology tools have become increasingly mainstream, and there exists concern that technology could replace lawyers. Law students are aware of this. Law School Transparency Data Dashboard recently reported that overall, first-year enrollment in law schools in 2017 has declined since 2010 by approximately 25%5 A recent article in USA Today suggested that this steady decline has contributed to several mergers of law schools (e.g. Hamline University and William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota), and in some instances, closure, for example, Whittier Law School. In an article published in 2017, writer Greg Toppo in USA Today opined that "As several trends hit the law profession—fewer graduates, fewer jobs and the specter of growing automation in legal services—experts say more law schools could take a hit."6
There is speculation that the automation provided by AI legal technology tools will lead to fewer jobs. In a recent blog post, Professor Christian Sundquist, of Albany Law School, expressed the view of many when noting that some legal employment opportunities are being taken over by AI, especially opportunities for first-year lawyers.7 It is important to note two different types of consumers for the AI legal technology tools: attorneys and members of the public who need legal assistance. The tools for both markets have similar functions such as natural language searches, legal document review, and basic legal research, but are tailored based on the consumer's legal expertise. LegalZoom, for example, on its website, purports to assist a person in the preparation of legal documents covering a wide array of topics including, but not limited to, business formation, wills and trusts, and help with intellectual property matters (the website indicates it offers self-guided programs and an independent network of associated attorneys).8 Companies with AI tools marketed towards attorneys include functions such as legal research, basic memo checking, legal discovery and even drafting, in some cases. This work has been referred to as lower rung legal functions that are traditionally done by new lawyers, often recent law school graduates. Some believe that lawyers who do these functions will need to change their focus or face the prospect of being without a job.9
This is not to say that the legal profession is going away. Many argue that these AI technological advancements will allow and provide more opportunities for those willing to work with the AI. To take advantage of these opportunities, it is vital that attorneys and law school students know what the emerging technologies are and how to work with them. In looking at the impact of AI on legal education, many of the articles consist of websites and blogs sponsored by companies working in the field. The relative lack of scholarly resources on the topic indicates the newness of the AI technology and research tools (although...