Artificial intelligence has been pilloried as a career killer across several industries, especially since the latest version of ChatGPT came out. The legal profession has not been immune, and with ChatGPT now able to pass the bar exam, a certain amount of anxiety is warranted.
But not that much anxiety. Do you know how many clients end up crying during meetings with their lawyers? It’s a lot more than a layperson might think. I see many such scenarios despite my practice mostly involving litigation over seemingly unemotional things like business disputes and easement issues. Let’s see a robot successfully navigate a situation where a sobbing millionaire who is paying you hundreds of dollars per hour is trying to direct the course of a legal dispute while some dickbag lawyer on the other side attempts to stab you in the back from the shadows.
Anyway, I digress. The point is that we are a long way off from AI replacing lawyers entirely.
What AI will do, in particular large language models like ChatGPT, is replace some of us, and some of what we do.
Artificial intelligence is already being used in transactional drafting. Although a flesh-and-blood lawyer still has to look over any contract or other legal document drafted by a large language model, I’m willing to bet that the first drafts spit out from some commercial AI services are already better than what you’d get by having a very green associate take a run at it.
Forms of AI have also already been in use for years in document review, once the purgatory of low-level litigation associates. As soon as artificial intelligence can pump out a reasonably good first draft of written discovery requests, well, at that stage maybe even a codger like me could develop feelings for it.
The relationship between legal professionals and increasingly powerful AI technology is going to vary wildly though based on where you are in the legal hierarchy. Of course, there is some truth to the stereotypes: older lawyers are generally not as comfortable with or as good at embracing new technologies (silence, youths, we’re doing our best).
Yet, younger attorneys, despite their tech savvy, could very well find themselves completely displaced. The types of tasks which cannot be easily outsourced to AI — client management, (cogent) oral arguments in court, business development — also happen to be the more desirable types of legal work. These tasks are already hoarded by the lawyers powerful enough in their careers to hoard them. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
A modest increase in attorney positions is expected by 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet the majority of these expected positions are purportedly going to be created not through organic growth in the legal industry, but through massive waves of attrition, attributable to retirements among older lawyers as well as disillusioned attorneys leaving the profession for a variety of reasons unrelated to longevity.
A partner retiring does not necessarily translate to an open position for an associate right out of law school. Additionally, there’s no evidence that the Bureau of Labor Statistics knew about and accounted for the sorts of quick advances we’ve seen recently in large language models — advances that could automate many of the tasks traditionally assigned to recent law school graduates.
Demand for lawyers dropped in 2022. Increased adoption of advanced AI technology is poised to worsen that trend. No company is going to spend hundreds of dollars an hour on outside counsel when an in-house large language model can accomplish the same ends.
Going into the legal profession has always been a high-risk, high-reward situation. If you’ve already majored in history or political science, going to law school is probably the best way to heighten your income potential. That being said, a ton of people who go to law school don’t pass the bar exam. A ton of people who go to law school pass the bar exam but still can’t get a decent job. A ton of people who pass the bar exam and get a decent legal job nonetheless find that they absolutely hate the work of being a lawyer.
The legal profession has always paid off massively for a few lucky individuals, while many others languish in misery or are diverted to an alternative career path. Although ChatGPT isn’t going to change anything about that general dynamic, it probably is going to amplify it.
Powerful AI won’t demolish the legal profession. What large language models and other forms of AI will do is further hollow out some corners of the legal profession.
My advice, if you are considering law school as legal AI is increasingly adopted: Don’t do it on a whim, do it without accumulating a massive debt if at all possible (affiliate link), and recognize that it is going to be incredibly hard work with no guarantee of success. In other words, go to law school if you really want to practice law — otherwise, don’t.
Jonathan Wolf is a civil litigator and author of Your Debt-Free JD (affiliate link). He has taught legal writing, written for a wide variety of publications, and made it both his business and his pleasure to be financially and scientifically literate. Any views he expresses are probably pure gold, but are nonetheless solely his own and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He wouldn’t want to share the credit anyway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.