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How AI could transform the legal industry … for the better

Matt Levin Jun 23, 2023
Heard on:
AI legal assistants could help cut costs and wait times. Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

How AI could transform the legal industry … for the better

Matt Levin Jun 23, 2023
Heard on:
AI legal assistants could help cut costs and wait times. Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

We’re at that point in the development of artificial intelligence where everything feels simultaneously amazing and terrifying.

On the amazing side, GPT-4, the large language model that powers ChatGPT, took the bar exam earlier this year. While lawyers in their 50s still have nightmares about passing the bar, it was a breeze for generative AI. GPT-4 scored in the 90th percentile, the top 10% of humans.

And on the terrifying side: The lawyer who filed a legal brief written by ChatGPT in federal court that ended up being full of fake cases and citations that ChatGPT made up.

For all the doom and gloom about AI, Michael Semanchik has a pretty compelling use case for the upside.

“Figure how we can take the 16.5-year average of a wrongfully convicted person sitting in prison and bring that something closer to maybe four years,” Semanchik said.

Semanchik is managing attorney at the California Innocence Project, a nonprofit that has freed 40 wrongfully incarcerated people, some serving life sentences.

“We have six lawyers,” he said. “A couple of our lawyers are actually sharing offices. And we are on a shoestring budget.”

Semanchik said his office gets about 800 requests for help every year, along with more than 4,000 pieces of mail his interns have to sort through. Paralegals are costly.

Which is why when a company asked him if he wanted to pilot a new AI legal assistant, he agreed to test it out.

“Dear AI, read through this case file, several hundred pages of police reports and transcripts,” Semanchik said. “Tell me, is this victim witness consistent in their identification of my client?”

He said a human attorney would take about a month to do all that.

The AI? Ten minutes, and it came back with accurate results.

Semanchik said a lot of the reason it takes so long to exonerate his clients isn’t necessarily the appeals process, it’s this type of grunt work.

“We’re getting to the point where lawyers have a duty to use AI,” Semanchik said.

There are already a bevy of legal AI products specifically tailored for law firms. Legal databases like LexisNexis and Westlaw have AI-branded offerings.

Jake Heller is CEO of Casetext. His company makes CoCounsel, the AI that the California Innocence Project is using. It costs $500 per user per month for for-profit firms.

With all these stories swirling around ChatGPT hallucinations, a lot of Heller’s job is reassuring interested attorneys that his AI won’t make stuff up.

“We ground everything it says in real documents, real databases, real information. So there aren’t chances for it to hallucinate or make up answers to questions,” Heller said.

Legal AI tools can summarize thousands of emails or texts for document review, recommend questions for depositions and write technical legal research memos.

All of that should translate to fewer billable hours and cheaper legal services — emphasis on should.

“The objective of particularly the larger law firms is to keep the money train going,” said Sharon Nelson, an attorney and technology consultant for law firms. “And so how do you do that? They’ll figure out how.”

Nelson started her career in the 1970s and said she’s seen parts of this movie before.

“You know, when we got computerized, everybody said it would reduce bills,” Nelson said. “Didn’t work. Did not work. And I’m pretty sure this one isn’t going to work either.”

But when Microsoft Word came on the scene, it couldn’t write a letter to opposing counsel for you or obey commands like make the letter more aggressive.

Evan Shenkman, chief innovation officer for Fisher Phillips, a national employment law firm that was an early adopter of legal AI, said lawyers and paralegals have so far given the AI rave reviews. They mostly use it as a starting point for legal research, and then the humans take over.

“[The AI] convinced some folks who were Luddites,” Shenkman said. “They told me, ‘Listen, I don’t do my own legal research anymore. Now I use CoCounsel and then I give the output to the associate or paralegal and say, “Check into that issue further.”‘”

No one has accused Shenkman yet of trying to replace them with a robot. And there’s just some very human lawyer things that CoCounsel isn’t great at. Like coming up with AI lawyer jokes.

Shenkman didn’t think it could come up with one. But sure enough, after a false start …

“Why did the AI lawyer refuse to take on a new case? Because it didn’t compute.”

Probably best to leave the lawyer jokes to ComedyGPT, whenever that comes out.

Editor’s note (June 24, 2023): This story was updated to clarify a quote from Evan Shenkman.

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