The explosion on the scene of advanced AI chatbots opens a new path to using this technology to help more citizens achieve the access to justice they need to meet their legal needs
OpenAI’s GPT-3’s recent explosion onto the tech scene has shaken the legal industry to its core, reigniting the question of whether computers will ultimately replace lawyers. While a full-out replacement is highly unlikely, one area where GPT has tremendous potential to transform our legal system — and help millions of people in the process — is by guiding low-income individuals through their legal problems to resolution, as 92% of low-income individuals’ civil legal needs are currently inadequately or unmet.
Chatbots are basic computer programs designed to simulate a conversation with a human user and have become increasingly popular in recent years as a way to provide customer service, answer frequently asked questions, and even provide mental health support. The latest advanced chatbot, called GPT-3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer), uses advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning to generate responses to user inputs in a way that is designed to be exceptionally human-like and natural.
Because the need for low-income individuals’ legal assistance greatly outweighs the number of lawyers who can assist, GPT can step in to help spot users’ legal needs, build out and maintain legal navigators, assist legal services organizations with client in-take, and make court processes and forms easier to navigate.
And because most low-income individuals with legal issues don’t even recognize their problems as legal in nature, GPT can be taught to catch and identify a legal issue as the person seeks advice through a search engine. The person might then be directed to a legal navigator that will share basic legal information to help address their problem. For example, a site might provide a step-by-step guide to getting divorced, explain how to file a claim against an unlawful landlord (after identifying what constitutes unlawful behavior), or provide legal and other support options for domestic violence survivors.
Organizations like the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and Pro Bono Net have already made great strides in building out content-rich online guides, which will become even more intelligent, accurate, and efficient by using AI.
“Imagine a user being able to ask for help and a chat bot trained from curated, reliable legal information websites providing a plain language explanation with step-by-step guidance,” says Jane Ribadeneyra, the Program Analyst for Technology for LSC. “Obviously, we will need to be cautious about using these new tools and ensure they don’t provide authoritative sounding, but incorrect, information to users. But, I believe those challenges will have solutions and new AI-based technologies we haven’t even imagined are on the horizon.”
Life-changing legal guidance
Indeed, enhanced guidance for those navigating legal issues on their own will be life changing. For those directed to local legal services organizations, for example, GPT can assist with the in-take process to make client qualification, referrals, and communication easier. Many legal aid organizations have limited resources and are unable to serve all of the individuals who seek their assistance. A chatbot could be used to help screen potential clients and gather basic information about their legal issues, allowing legal aid organizations to prioritize their cases and ensure that they are able to serve the most vulnerable populations, while referring out eligible cases for pro bono services.
Legal-focused AI can also assist with legal research and document preparation to resolve cases faster. For example, a chatbot could be programmed to search for relevant legal precedents or statutes and provide summaries of the information it finds. In fact, this technology is already being developed and refined among the legaltech community, and it could also be used to help draft legal documents, such as contracts or pleadings, by providing template language and guiding users through the process of filling in necessary information.
Legal-focused AI can also assist with legal research and document preparation to resolve cases faster.
“We’ve started building bots for the public to access basic legal information using GPT technology,” says Tom Martin, Founder and CEO at LawDroid. “With GPT, we can build these bots 10-times faster than with intent-based natural language systems. GPT-powered chatbots are also much more effective in guiding people quickly to relevant information. It’s funny that systems like Dialogflow, which were state-of-the-art about two months ago, have now been rendered old-fashioned.”
Amanda Brown, Founder and Executive Director of the Lagniappe Law Lab, agrees that things are changing fast and access to justice and legal work processes will be the beneficiaries. “New AI tools like ChatGPT have the capacity to significantly support access to justice when paired with allied professionals like legal navigators,” Brown explains. “Lawyers and legal navigators trained to use these tools will be able to more efficiently provide user-friendly information and do basic legal drafting, leaning on their legal training to ensure accuracy and completeness. As we look ahead in legal education and the development of new delivery models, training on the use of these tools should be an essential component of curriculum development.”
Further, collaboration among legal professionals and those developing AI tools will be crucial to ensuring accuracy, relevancy, and effectiveness.
Chatbots in the courts
Finally, GPT has a place within the nation’s courts to make our legal system more approachable and accessible to those pursuing justice. “Currently, I am building a few different chatbots for different workflows (criminal, civil, and drug court),” says Judge Scott U. Schlegel of the 24th Judicial District Court in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. “Each is being built to help court users better navigate the justice system.”
Judge Schlegel explains his chatbots have the potential to scale the court’s limited resources, provide necessary information to lawyers and litigants at the right time, and help set expectations, which is extremely important. “We also hope to integrate these chatbots with the clerk of court’s system so that court users can get case specific information and a database of Louisiana laws,” he adds. “The sky is the limit with all of the potential use cases,”
One potential limitation of using GPT to increase access to justice is the risk of providing incorrect or misleading information, of course. While the bots are designed to be highly accurate and generate responses that are similar to those from a human, they will need additional training and may occasionally provide incorrect or outdated information. The chatbots should be regularly reviewed and updated to ensure they are providing accurate and up-to-date information — a potentially complicated task.
Despite those challenges, new technologies like GPT chatbots have significant potential to increase access to justice for individuals who are currently underserved by our legal system. By issue spotting, providing basic legal guidance and documents, assisting with legal services in-take processes, and helping court processes, GPT would make it easier for individuals in need to understand and navigate their legal issues. While AI won’t replace lawyers anytime soon, it is a critical tool to narrow our justice gap and should be used responsibly.