Keeping an Eye on AI
New advances in artificial intelligence are rapidly changing the legal landscape. Sophisticated chatbots released onto the mass market in recent months have prompted fierce debates about how AI tools should be used, along with concerns about ethical pitfalls. Recently, Suffolk University Law School Dean Andrew Perlman made headlines by co-authoring an academic paper with the AI tool ChatGPT. We spoke with Dean Perlman about his perspective on AI’s evolving role in legal education.
Q: Is it possible the hype around AI is a flash in the pan? Just this year’s shiny new tech toy or academic trend?
AP: I don’t think so. In my view, we have arrived at a major turning point, both for legal services and society. For lawyers, I think this technology will prove to be at least as transformative as the internet and quite possibly more so. I came to this realization after engaging with ChatGPT last fall—and even more sophisticated versions that have been subsequently released—and seeing how effective AI has become in answering law-related questions.
A significant part of what lawyers do is working with words and documents. Memos, briefs, complaints, answers, interrogatory document requests, transactional documents of all kinds—lawyers work in words. And what AI tools are really good at is generating words after absorbing lots of information and documents and stringing those words together in a way that is logical and well-structured.
To be sure, there are limitations to what it can do. But, in my view, generative AI will eventually help lawyers do a lot more with the same resources; enable them to do their work better, faster, cheaper; and help the public gain access to legal services when they otherwise wouldn't be able to afford them.
Q: Suffolk’s Legal Innovation and Technology (LIT) Lab program has already created an automated tool that assists tenants fighting eviction in real time. Can you talk about AI’s potential for people who need legal services but do not have access to a human lawyer?
AP: The LIT Lab is a national leader in thinking about how to use technology and innovation to expand access to the civil legal services that the public needs. To date, the Lab has automated a wide range of legal documents, and AI offers the potential to accelerate the process of automation in various kinds of legal matters. For example, I expect that AI will play an increasing role in helping people obtain government benefits, defend against foreclosure, protect themselves in bankruptcy, or file for divorce or a protective order.
Imagine, for example, using AI in immigration matters, where people who don't speak English could engage with a tool in their own language that guides them through various types of immigration proceedings. Or imagine that you’re facing a debt collection proceeding; you probably don't have a lot of spare resources, so an automated tool can guide you. There are services out there now that have automated some of these processes, but the AI is going to greatly enhance them and expand them into other areas. The LIT Lab is already exploring ways to advance this work.
Q: What does this mean for Suffolk Law as a leading institution in training the next generation of lawyers?
AP: For more than a decade, we have been at the forefront of teaching students how to use technology and innovation to deliver legal services more efficiently and effectively, and we’ve already begun incorporating generative AI into the curriculum.
This kind of training will ensure that our graduates remain practice-ready, especially as they join law firms where the lawyers may not be entirely comfortable with these tools. It gives our students a leg up in the marketplace to be able to say, “I not only know the traditional aspects of the practice of law, but I can help you update your services as well.”
Q: What about naysayers who think this technology does not belong in the classroom, or even say it is potentially dangerous and destructive?
AP: There is a real and understandable concern that AI is a “Frankenstein” of our own creation, a monster that's going to wreak havoc on our world. I take these concerns seriously and agree that there are real risks.
Among other problems, AI can be used to spread misinformation. I experienced this problem myself when I asked (the AI tool) a multiple-choice question on legal ethics. It gave me an answer I knew was wrong. I asked (the chatbot) why it gave me the wrong answer, and it quoted a version of a rule that does not exist. It made it up.
I'm an expert in legal ethics, yet it had me second-guessing myself. It was gaslighting me. So, if it had me second-guessing myself about what the law is in an area where I’m an expert, imagine how it could influence people who are not sophisticated about a subject.
Despite these and related concerns, the technology is going to continue to advance. It's going to be used. We need to find ways to put guardrails around it and make sure it's used in the best possible way. And soon.
Q: What is the responsibility of institutions like Suffolk Law to determine those guardrails in the classroom?
AP: We want students to be able to learn how to write, how to analyze, and how to approach legal problems without offloading or outsourcing those skills to AI. Critical thinking will be more important than ever, so we need to find a balance between ensuring that students develop the analytical skills they need for law practice, while ensuring that they know how to use emerging technology.
Pulling back a bit and looking at this from the perspective of society, lawyers are on the front lines of dispensing justice and helping to uncover the truth. Training professionals who are adept at getting to the bottom of what is true in a world where there's so much misinformation circulating is going to be critical. Although AI will be an increasingly important tool in a rapidly changing world, the skills we teach in law school—including the ability to tease apart arguments and distinguish between truth and fiction—will remain an essential part of a legal education.
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