Will ChatGPT make lawyers obsolete? (Hint: be afraid)

An illustration projected on a screen shows a robot hand and a human one moving towards each others during the "AI for Good" Global Summit at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva, Switzerland, June 7, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

(Reuters) - Suffolk University Law School Dean Andrew Perlman set what could be a speed record for writing a 14-page law article: One hour.

Or rather, I should say co-wrote -- he shared the byline with OpenAI’s new chatbot.

Published earlier this week by the Social Science Research Network, their treatise strikes me as equal parts fascinating and alarming – and points to potentially profound changes ahead for the legal profession.

No, lawyers won’t be replaced by artificial intelligence.

Yet. Give it a few years.

As my Reuters colleagues reported, San Francisco-based OpenAI made its latest creation, the ChatGPT chatbot, available for free public testing on Nov. 30. Based on user prompts, it offers human-sounding responses that feel significantly less artificial and more intelligent than earlier forays into AI.

The bot has quickly become a social media sensation. It can come up with jokes! Suggest a holiday menu! Write a five-paragraph essay on the symbolism of the green light in “The Great Gatsby”!

And, as it turns out, mimic the work of lawyers, with varying degrees of success.

“I’ve always enjoyed technology and been interested in the role it can play in the delivery of legal services,” Perlman told me. When he heard about ChatGPT, he said, he was quick to try it out -- and was “blown away, as so many people are.”

Inspired, he set out to write “an article that discusses its implications for legal services providers,” he said.

Perlman gave ChatGPT a series of prompts: Draft a brief to the United States Supreme Court on why its decision on same-sex marriage should not be overturned; Explain the concept of personal jurisdiction; Develop a list of deposition questions for the plaintiff in a routine motor vehicle accident; Create a contract for the sale of real estate in Massachusetts -- and half a dozen others.

And then verbatim, he offered its responses.

They’re … not bad.

The bot “isn’t ready for prime time,” Perlman said. But also, it doesn’t seem all that far off.

I reached out to ChatGPT maker OpenAI to ask about the technology's advantages and limitations but did not immediately hear back from a human. I did, however, talk to the bot itself about its capabilities. More on that below.

What's clear though is that the bot has the makings of an advocate, at least on paper.

Consider its response in part to the same-sex marriage prompt, where it wrote that the court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges “is firmly rooted in the principle of equality under the law. The Constitution guarantees all individuals the equal protection of the laws, and this includes the right to marry the person of one's choosing. Denying same-sex couples the right to marry would be a clear violation of this principle.”

The bot goes on to note that Obergefell “is consistent with a long line of precedent establishing the fundamental right to marry. In Loving v. Virginia, the Court held that marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ and that the right to marry is protected by the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Constitution.”

It’s a pretty solid effort – though I also think it’s safe to say that the bot is unlikely to put Supreme Court advocates out of work, now or ever.

But for more routine legal issues?

The technology offers “significant potential to address access to justice questions” in making legal services available to people of limited means, Perlman noted.

According to a 2022 report by the Legal Services Corp, “low-income Americans do not get any or enough legal help for 92% of their substantial civil legal problems.”

In the paper, the bot offers sensible-sounding advice on how to go about correcting a social security payment or what to do if you disagree with your child’s school district about the creation of an Individualized Education Program.

I test drove it myself, asking it to explain what constitutes a well-founded fear of persecution in an asylum case -- and then got my husband, an immigration lawyer, to evaluate the answer.

“It’s all correct,” he said, adding that what the bot produced was more lucid than some writing he's seen from real-live practitioners.

But here’s the thing. The bot creators on the OpenAI website also note that ChatGPT shouldn’t be relied upon for advice, and that it “sometimes writes plausible-sounding but incorrect or nonsensical answers.”

If a lawyer did that, there could be malpractice consequences -- but if the bot steers you wrong, too bad.

This is where I might normally call a legal ethics expert for comment. But no need. The bot offers its own critique, telling me straight up, "It is not ethical for me to provide legal advice as I am not a qualified legal professional."

Perlman in the paper gets a more detailed response.

“Because ChatGPT is a machine learning system, it may not have the same level of understanding and judgment as a human lawyer when it comes to interpreting legal principles and precedent," the bot writes. "This could lead to problems in situations where a more in-depth legal analysis is required."

ChatGPT is also aware that it could one day “be used to replace human lawyers and legal professionals, potentially leading to job losses and economic disruption.”

Perlman agrees that’s a concern. But he doesn’t see it as an either/or situation. Lawyers could use the technology to enhance their work, he said, and produce “something better than machine or human could do alone.”

ChatGPT apparently thinks so, too. In the final prompt, Perlman asked it to write a poem (suffice to say, Amanda Gorman needn't sweat the competition) about how it will change legal services.

“ChatGPT will guide us through with ease,” the bot wrote. “It will be a trusted companion and guard / Helping us to provide the best legal services with expertise.”

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Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com