Editor's Note: Relativity's community engagement lead, Johnathan Hill, originally wrote this article for the Legal Services Corporation, who first published it via Medium.
The rapid evolution of technology has brought us closer to making our wildest imaginations reality, paving the way for optimism and creativity. However, skepticism regarding artificial intelligence (AI) and its potential harms threatens its progress across industries.
Engaging with new technology often means a lack of proper guidance, leaving room for concern and hesitation. Despite this, there are remarkable AI solutions being developed to enhance various aspects of the legal process, from intake to case management and judicial engagements. While not all these tools deliver the desired results just yet, AI holds exciting potential for closing the justice gap.
The Legal Services Corporation (LSC), an independent nonprofit established by the U.S. Congress in 1974, aims to provide equal access to justice for low-income individuals and families. LSC defines the justice gap as the disparity between the civil legal needs of low-income Americans and the available resources. Their recent report reveals that 92 percent of substantial civil legal problems faced by low-income Americans go unresolved due to insufficient legal assistance.
It is evident that legal aid organizations are striving to deliver the best possible services, but they are in dire need of support. In addition to the longstanding hurdles that impede their efforts to deliver quality representation to low-income clients, there are the pandemic’s shuttered courtrooms, delayed filings, and increased domestic violence reports, all while individuals in the system suffered from widespread contagion of COVID-19. This exacerbated the existing backlog of cases and may have contributed to an increase in other specific legal matters such as evictions, employment disputes, consumer debt, bankruptcy, and family law issues.
In addition to these acutely difficult circumstances, legal services providers face common challenges, including budget constraints, staff shortages, and limited technology infrastructure. All of this adds up to efficiency losses which, most importantly, reduce their organizations’ ability to take on new clients and move more cases toward resolution. Rightfully, legal aid organizations across the country are seeking new solutions to address these challenges—and AI should be considered with confidence.
AI is a powerful tool, albeit a complex one. In my role at an e-discovery company that builds AI into our solutions, we have witnessed legal aid organizations using AI to review documents more efficiently, find critical evidence faster, and reduce human errors. As technology continues to reshape the legal landscape, we must prepare legal professionals and their clients for this transformation—and equip them with strategies for leveraging this technology responsibly and making the most of its benefits.
Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, which created ChatGPT, recently testified before the U.S. Senate on AI oversight. Altman emphasized the importance of companies providing test results, sharing strengths and weaknesses, and conducting independent audits to eliminate inaccuracies and biases as AI models improve. Transparency regarding data sources, model behaviors, data privacy, and performance is crucial. A colleague of mine, Brittany Roush, recently wrote a blog post on the subject of ethics in AI. She explained that it’s crucial that, if legal professionals decide to leverage AI, they have a clear understanding of how data is stored and protected. Without taking those precautions, they run the risk of not knowing if their client data is being used to train vendor models and potentially expose protected client information.
With the exponential growth of data and electronically stored information, we need to educate ourselves quickly and work smarter. It is encouraging to see legal aid organizations embracing AI to optimize talent processes, operations, and fundraising. Innovative AI companies operating in the access to justice space provide invaluable assistance with legal research, case law analysis, document organization and analysis, legal advice, and streamlining pro bono work.
This is the future of the legal industry. Like others, this industry will continue to seek ways to integrate AI into their processes. This should not distort the value of attorneys or other legal practitioners who are vital in efforts to advance justice for marginalized communities. In fact, it should be viewed as a universal tool that, when applied correctly, will optimize your work so you can focus on the substantive tasks, allowing you to achieve more with less. There has been no data evidence to support a reduction in clients in need, so we must ensure more clients have access to quality representation and legal support.
I hope others share my excitement as this industry evolves, welcoming new companies, jobs, and partnerships. While I have come to appreciate this new way of working, I understand that not everyone or every organization shares the same sentiment. For those unsure of where to start, I offer a few strategies to begin:
#1: Know Where You’re Technically Deficient
It’s important to diagnose your current technology stack and infrastructure to understand where it exposes you to risks. Those are not just risks of something going catastrophically wrong—such as a data breach—but also evaluating the potential consequences of not optimizing. How will an outdated technology strategy impact your workflows, team morale, data management, client satisfaction, or employees’ efficiency? There are real opportunity costs here if you aren’t thinking strategically about where to optimize.
#2: Inquire with Confidence
Lean into your curiosity around AI and weigh the benefits of implementing solutions within your organizations. Let’s be honest: from AI, to cybersecurity, to social media, staying up to date on all of the technological trends is nearly impossible. The goal, though, is to get a grasp of how it impacts the colleagues, clients and communities we serve. Incorporate building new skills/knowledge back into your workflow, whether it’s by subscribing to a resource like The Relativity Blog or Legaltech News, listening to LSC’s ‘Talk Justice’ podcast, or surrounding yourself with technologists by attending conferences or meetups. By better educating oneself, you’re able to identify the right partners, ask the right questions, and ensure you and your constituents’ principles are upheld more confidently.
#3: Find the Right Solution to Pilot
Start small! Whether it’s hardware or software, no tool can fix the entire house tomorrow. You’re seeking a tool that’s going to fill the gaps you’ve identified in your evaluation and make you more productive. My boss’s favorite thing to say, whenever there’s a new idea or resource rolled out in the company, is “let’s pilot it.” Instead of resisting the change, embrace it and see if it’s right for you. As you engage with technology vendors and service providers, you control the speed of the migration process. By starting with small amounts of data, you can tweak, gauge accuracy, ask questions, and see first-hand what support and training entail. It’s important to remember you’re not alone and others are asking the same questions to hold providers accountable.
#4: Upskill Your Organization
While some are resistant of AI replacing them, other legal aid organizations are using AI tools and are deep in their transformational journeys. As they try to find out where to start, there are many options at their fingertips. One thing to consider is not to approach this alone. Take advantage of the networking events and trainings that expose you to new sources and connections that are eagerly tackling the topic like you. Encourage your organization to prioritize including AI-specific topics in CLE offerings. Partner with other legal aid organizations and invite technology vendors to explain how their tools improve your work. It’s growing to become an asset the legal industry can rely on to reduce simple tasks, automate workflows and digest complex information. Preparing your workforce for this evolution is a necessity in the pursuit of justice.
Legal aid, it’s time to embrace AI and harness technology to increase access to justice! Getting a good grasp of the ins and outs of artificial intelligence may seem like an insurmountable task, but the resources are out there to help smooth that learning curve and put yourself on track to embrace an evolved, game-changing practice of law.
Graphics for this article were created by Natalie Andrews.