President's Letter

AI and the Legal Landscape: Do not fear a zombie apocalypse

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ABA President Mary Smith. (Photo courtesy of the Chicago Bar Association)

Last year, two New York attorneys submitted a legal brief that included six fictitious case citations generated by ChatGPT. In his ruling imposing sanctions on the men and their firm, Judge P. Kevin Castel wrote that “there is nothing inherently improper about using a reliable artificial intelligence tool for assistance,” but that by submitting and defending those fake judicial opinions, the lawyers had “abandoned their responsibilities.”

As lawyers and members of the ABA, we must not abandon our responsibility to guide this moment, as artificial intelligence’s transformative potential holds great promise and peril for every sector, especially the legal profession.

AI’s impact

Law firms have already begun implementing AI to draft contracts, conduct research and formulate arguments. AI can predict outcomes and provide insights on the leanings of judges, lawyers and witnesses. Yet AI can and does err, creating false citations or drawing illogical conclusions, called hallucinations. It can overlook the subtleties in complex legal matters and raises serious concerns about privacy and transparency.

AI’s nuanced implications are especially significant for the next generation of legal professionals, particularly to determine how students and new lawyers will conduct research and be trained. Many law schools are already grappling with its use on exams and essays, but Arizona State University permits AI use in admission applications, while the University of Michigan has set boundaries by prohibiting its use in admissions essays. Law schools must emphasize awareness and strike a balance between the use of AI and ethical guidelines, instructing students on AI’s capabilities and limitations. Leading institutions must also take steps to address these challenges and harness the potential of this transformative technology.

Will AI replace lawyers?

Many in the legal profession worry that AI will replace them. That question was surveyed and addressed in a new Thomson Reuters report, Future of Professionals Report: How AI is the Catalyst for Transforming Every Aspect of Work. Respondents were asked how they would feel if a time traveler from 2033 appeared to tell them that AI had become ubiquitous within their profession.

One in 10 compared the scenario to a “zombie apocalypse.” But interestingly, more respondents were “cautiously positive.” Being cautiously positive is a good attitude for lawyers to take when assessing AI’s future impact. More than two-thirds of professionals surveyed (67%) by Thomson Reuters predicted that the emergence of generative AI will either be a transformative or a high-impact change to their industries during the next five years.

Shaping the future

The ABA has a long history of not only addressing the critical issues of our time but also the most important legal issues. This is no different, and to that end, we have created the ABA Task Force on Law and Artificial Intelligence. Our goal is to comprehensively assess AI’s impact on the practice of law and the ethical implications such as how to protect client confidentiality. We are addressing risks of bias and cybersecurity and privacy challenges with generative AI; AI governance encompassing laws and industry best practices; and the role of AI in legal education and the courts.

In terms of law practice, Al can open new career trajectories and free lawyers to perform more sophisticated tasks. And one of the most exciting applications of AI is to tackle access to justice and the justice gap.

Looking forward

As the legal profession stands at this crossroads, the ABA’s commitment remains steadfast: to guide the community through a future anchored in innovation, prudence and unwavering integrity. We are a resilient and adaptable industry in the face of change, and the journey with AI will be no different. The Task Force for Law and AI Intelligence embodies this spirit of proactive engagement—a testament to our resolve to navigate uncharted waters with a vigilant eye and to ensure the legal field not only adapts but thrives in this era of AI. Lawyers need not face AI with trepidation. As Frankin Delano Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Follow President Smith on X @ABAPresident or email [email protected].

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