The Practical Application and Ethics of Artificial Intelligence in the Legal Sector

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The Practical Application and Ethics of Artificial Intelligence in the Legal Sector

While the law may appear to deal in absolutes – precedent, legislative frameworks, right and wrong – it is nevertheless dynamic, deeply nuanced and in some cases open to (re)interpretation. Context and circumstances can alter the direction and outcome of a case that has been pored over by lawyers and advocates looking for the best result for their client.


And while artificial intelligence (AI) might be transforming some of the work of lawyers and advocates, it is unlikely that it will ever replace them, until such times as AI can negotiate, empathise, strategise or plead a case in court.


What is Artificial Intelligence?

AI is already an integral part of our lives. The customer service bots with whom we interact on messaging platforms, websites and apps are driven by AI. Our smart home devices such as Siri and Alexa are creations of AI and the Internet of Things in which connectivity is embedded into household appliances and other services are also examples of AI at work.

In business, especially in the financial services and legal sectors, there has been a rapid uptake of machine learning and AI functions, removing the tedium from work that is repetitive, but which requires meticulous attention and many hours to complete. Using AI, calculations, data collection and analysis, including looking for patterns in reams of documents, and even translations, can be done in a fraction of the time by AI than it can be by a human.


AI and the law

In the legal sector, there are many applications and advantages but also pitfalls and ethical questions in the introduction of AI. Clearly, using software and algorithms that can detect anomalies, risks, issues with compliance and other problematic clauses in long and complex contracts, is a clear win. AI can even make short work of drafting contracts  – just think of the speed with which ChatGPT can ‘write’ an entire essay and apply this to some of the functions of the law.


The Pros

AI can reduce the number of billable hours that lawyers charge, thereby lowering legal costs and making legal advice more affordable and accessible for more people. AI can also convert complex documents into formats that are more easily understood by clients – making them more visual or translated into a different language, for example. For lawyers, the use of AI in analysing case history is invaluable, where outcomes and judgements including by specific judges, can be tracked using AI to craft heads of argument and legal responses that leverage this information.


And cons

If AI reduces the amount of time a human lawyer might take to do the same work, thereby reducing bills, AI nevertheless requires significant investment in sophisticated software and experts in its application and interpretation, possibly adding to a practice’s cost to clients. If the experts are not the firm’s own legal staff, they may need to employ specialists, increasing the staff complement.


AI cannot make strategic decisions in matters of litigation, and may be flawed or provide inaccurate information, making all AI outputs subject to rigorous checking. In addition, AI must be programmed to eliminate any historical biases which will be part of its source material and which may skew its results or findings in a particular matter, or it will continue to perpetuate miscarriages of justice that have occurred in the past based on a client’s gender, ethnicity, sexuality or even wealth.


How AI will impact legal professionals of the future

As South Africa observes Youth Month, it is crucial to consider how AI will affect the career paths of junior lawyers. AI’s integration into the legal profession presents both opportunities and challenges for those entering the legal profession. Automating routine tasks like document review and legal research allows junior lawyers to focus on complex issues, fostering a strategic mindset. Machine learning enhances decision-making by predicting legal outcomes, providing valuable learning opportunities. AI-powered chatbots improve client interactions, ensuring junior lawyers are well-prepared for effective relationship building. Increased efficiency from automation boosts firm profitability, while the ethical assessment of AI outputs keeps junior lawyers engaged in maintaining legal standards. Junior lawyers who understand the importance of AI in developing their roles and embrace its possibilities will be ideally placed to succeed in this increasingly digitised legal environment.


AI can be applied with great effect in the legal sector already but requires great sensitivity and will never replace the value of human interaction. AI will surely only ever be a tool that complements the work of flesh and blood lawyers who know that the law is not always as straight forward as we – or AI – might believe.


A blog article by: Brendan Michie

For more information, please contact Hammond Pole Attorneys:

Brendan Michie – brendan@hammondpole.co.za

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