Monday, May 20, 2024

Is It Ethical To Use Generative AI In Legal Practice?

When groundbreaking technology like generative AI appears, it’s a given that everyone will start using it. Lawyers are no exception, of course. But legal practice isn’t just any profession. It’s steeped in tradition and bound by rigorous ethical standards. So, does this mean GenAI isn’t for lawyers? Or, can they only use it for a limited number of tasks? Let’s find out together.

What’s Generative AI Exactly And Why Do Lawyers Use It?

First things first, what is generative AI exactly and how is it different from the regular AI we are already familiar with? Well, put simply, it’s a specific breed that’s designed to create content. Whether it’s text, images, or even code, this tech learns from vast amounts of data to generate new, original pieces. As you may guess, these pieces would normally resemble the input it was trained on.

GenAI is actually capable of performing a lot of tasks in legal practice.

  • Create content

First off, generative AI can churn out draft documents at lightning speed. This can be everything from legal briefs to contracts. Imagine typing a brief outline of what you need, and, in an instant, a draft is ready for review.

  • Research and analysis

Many law firms today turn to data analytics services to enhance decision-making with the help of GenAI. The latter can sift through legal databases to find precedents and relevant case law faster than a team of human researchers. This opens two opportunities: it saves time and uncovers insights people might overlook.

  • Accessibility

Generative AI can, among all else, make legal documents more understandable to non-lawyers. It can break down complex legal jargon into plain language. This democratizes legal information and makes it accessible to a broader audience.

  • Strategic planning

And lastly, this tech can be a strategy optimizer. It analyzes outcomes of past cases and predicts trends to help law firms strategize more effectively. With its help, lawyers see the likelihood of success for different legal maneuvers.

But with all these diverse uses, comes the big question: is it ethical to use these tools in legal practice? To answer this, we need to review the main risks associated with its use.

As we’ve seen above, Generative AI can greatly boost productivity in legal practice. Lawyers can crank out documents, conduct research, and strategize at unprecedented speeds. But does faster mean better? Not necessarily. While the efficiency of this tech is a massive boon, it doesn’t automatically enhance the quality of legal work. Here’s a closer look at why that might be the case.


The first pitfall is accuracy. GenAI operates on the data it’s fed, which means its output is only as good as its input. When drafting legal documents or conducting research, there’s always the risk of generating content that’s off-base. Or, it may generate content that’s not fully applicable to the specific legal context.

For example, a contract generated in seconds might miss crucial clauses specific to a client’s situation. Or, a case law summary might overlook a recent precedent-setting decision. This means that lawyers must still meticulously review AI-generated content, which can somewhat offset the time savings.

Consider this scenario:

Imagine a family law attorney uses GenAI to draft divorce settlement agreements. The AI pulls from a broad dataset, but it doesn’t account for recent changes in state-specific laws about asset division. The attorney, pressed for time, doesn’t catch this oversight. The result? A final agreement that’s legally inaccurate and could potentially harm the client’s financial interests. A real headache when this mistake surfaces during court proceedings.


Then there’s the issue of bias. AI systems learn from vast datasets, and if those datasets contain biases, the system will inevitably replicate them. In the legal realm, this can have serious implications.

For example, if GenAI predicts case outcomes based on past rulings, and those past rulings reflect systemic biases, the AI’s advice might inadvertently perpetuate those injustices. This raises ethical concerns about fairness and equality before the law, especially in sensitive areas like sentencing recommendations or bail settings.

Consider this scenario:

Let’s say a criminal defense lawyer uses GenAI to predict the outcome of a case based on historical data. The AI, trained on past court decisions, suggests a plea deal that seems reasonable. But here’s the catch: the data is skewed by systemic bias against minority clients. That is, the lawyer might advise accepting a deal that’s harsher than what might be negotiated, perpetuating the cycle of injustice.

Moral Responsibility

A major ethical concern is the lack of moral responsibility. Yes, GenAI can draft a document or suggest a legal strategy. However, it has no understanding of the ethical implications of its suggestions. It’s incapable of weighing moral considerations or the broader impact of legal decisions on people’s lives.

This detachment from the human element of law can lead to recommendations that, while legally sound, may not be in the best interest of justice or the client’s wellbeing. Lawyers must bridge this gap. They must ensure that the use of AI aligns with ethical practices and the pursuit of justice.

Consider this scenario:

A corporate law firm employs GenAI to outline potential strategies for a high-stakes merger. The AI suggests a legally sound yet aggressive approach that could lead to significant job losses at the target company. Its “advice” doesn’t consider the human impact of these job losses. It’s up to the lawyers to weigh the moral consequences of following through with an AI-driven strategy that prioritizes profits over people.


Finally, there’s the critical issue of confidentiality. The legal profession is built on trust, with strict rules about client confidentiality. When lawyers use GenAI tools, there’s a risk of exposing sensitive information.

Whether it’s uploading documents to a cloud-based service or relying on AI for communication, there’s always a chance of a data breach. This poses a risk to client privacy as well as to the integrity of the legal process itself. Lawyers thus need to ensure that any tool they use complies with stringent security measures.

Consider this scenario:

A lawyer uses a popular GenAI platform to draft sensitive client documents. The platform’s data is stored on servers that aren’t as secure as believed. A data breach occurs, exposing confidential information about several high-profile cases. This damages the lawyer’s reputation and puts the clients’ legal standings at risk.

Final Thoughts

In sum, while GenAI has a lot to offer to legal practice in terms of efficiency, it also presents certain ethical challenges. This means that lawyers must use this tech carefully. After all, it’s not just about what GenAI can (or can’t) do. Rather, it’s about ensuring it’s used in a way that upholds the highest standards of the legal profession.


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