The sensationalism surrounding ChatGPT that has developed since its launch on November 30, 2022, has been fascinating to observe. For the uninitiated, ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence (“AI”) chatbot that provides detailed responses based on conversational prompts from the user. It will compose pretty much anything you ask it to – whether it be an e-mail or an essay – and it will do so in a matter of seconds.
ChatGPT quickly made headlines following its debut as students started using it to do their homework assignments and journalists responded with shock as they tested its ability to write news articles for them. The sentiment from some vocal sources was negative and painted a dire picture regarding the impact ChatGPT could have in education and various industries – including legal services.
This phenomenon is not uncommon – sensationalism sells after all. Overblown fear-mongering does not, however, mean that the technology should be discounted. While it will not happen overnight, legal professionals would be foolish to ignore the potential for disruption that programs like ChatGPT will create in our legal system.
Ease of Use
The beauty of ChatGPT rests in how simple it is to use. Older chatbots were inherently more difficult and frustrating because they required very specific prompts from the user. If you didn’t know the exact way to ask it to do something, it would not be able to respond. ChatGPT, on the other hand, responds to normal language inquiries. Type how you would speak and it will understand your inquiry.
As a lawyer, I tend to write with an intended level of precision and initially took this approach to my communications with ChatGPT. It will, however, respond to any form of language one chooses to use. For example, in one of my many test runs at confusing ChatGPT, I stated, “yoooooooo chatgpt, i need a 300 word essay on hippos that’s mad fire,” and it responded with, “Yo, what’s good my man? You want an essay on hippos that’s mad fire? Say no more, I got you,” before cranking out an essay in seconds.
ChatGPT and Legal Queries
ChatGPT will do the same thing with legal questions that are presented to it. If you ask it questions about a legal issue, not only will it provide a relatively good answer in many circumstances, but it will also remember some of the facts presented to it and frame its response to further inquiries with that information in mind. A question regarding an employment law issue in Ontario will result in further responses in that chain of questioning referring specifically to Ontario law without the user having to remind it.
The chatbot’s creators have smartly programmed it to recognize legal questions and inform its users that it’s not authorized to provide legal services or practice law. ChatGPT outright refused to prepare a draft Statement of Claim for me based on a set of made-up facts that I provided the program. However, when I requested that it provide a non-specific example of a Statement of Claim for the same type of issue, the program happily complied with an almost passable outline draft. While I did encounter the occasional error or oddity, ChatGPT also answered several legal questions posed to it with very accurate, albeit general, answers.
No, This is Not the End of the Legal Profession – But AI May be a Big Part of its Future
All the above being said, ChatGPT is not the harbinger of doom for the legal profession that some sensationalists would have you believe. In fact, it would be outright dangerous for a lawyer to rely on anything it produces right now. It simply does not have the ability to understand the context in which legal questions are being asked of it, particularly when those questions are complex or nuanced. It also does not have the ethical or professional judgment that a client would expect from their lawyer.
However, ChatGPT is indicative of what we might see as the next major evolution of legal practice. It is not at all difficult to imagine a near future where some successor legal chatbot AI will do a lot of the heavy lifting for lawyers and their support staff.
If it can improve efficiency and provide for more cost-effective legal solutions then it could result in greater access to justice overall. The efficiency component alone is incredible. A human simply cannot prepare correspondence as quickly as ChatGPT can.
Ignoring ChatGPT won’t make it go away, and pretending that a form of this won’t become normalized in legal practice is naive. While I can gratefully say that I am not old enough to have seen how digital research databases disrupted legal research, I’m sure some of the current ChatGPT naysayers would have been the same types insisting that all legal research should be done via stuffy old tomes in a law library.
It may not be suitable for legal use yet, but any lawyer with an intention of practicing for more than another five years would be well advised to start building a familiarity with the platform. Understanding how AI can build efficiency into their practice, as well as the limitations it will inherently have, will be critical for making good use of any new narrow AI in legal practice.