More than a decade ago, lawyers were singled out as an endangered occupational species, their livelihoods at risk from advances in artificial intelligence.
But the doomsayers got ahead of themselves. While clever software has taken over some of the toil of legal work — searching, reviewing and mining mountains of legal documents for nuggets of useful information — employment in the legal profession has grown faster than the American work force as a whole.
Today, a new A.I. threat looms, and lawyers may feel a bit of déjà vu. There are warnings that ChatGPT-style software, with its humanlike language fluency, could take over much of legal work. The new A.I. has its flaws, notably its proclivity to make things up, including fake legal citations. But proponents insist those are teething defects in a nascent technology — and fixable.
Will the pessimists finally be right?
Law is seen as the lucrative profession perhaps most at risk from the recent advances in A.I. because lawyers are essentially word merchants. And the new technology can recognize and analyze words and generate text in an instant. It seems ready and able to perform tasks that are the bread and butter of lawyers.
“That is really, really powerful,” said Robert Plotkin, an intellectual property lawyer in Cambridge, Mass. “My work and my career has been mostly writing text.”
But unless the past isn’t a guide, the impact of the new technology is more likely to be a steadily rising tide than a sudden tidal wave. New A.I. technology will change the practice of law, and some jobs will be eliminated, but it also promises to make lawyers and paralegals more productive, and to create new roles. That is what happened after the introduction of other work-altering technologies like the personal computer and the internet.