Dickerson: Artificial intelligence and the legal academy

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The use of artificial intelligence is rapidly expanding in the legal industry, but what are law schools doing to train future practitioners? Upstream from the legal profession’s conservative approach to change, the legal academy is also notoriously slow to change. But given the transformative nature of AI, law schools need to be at the forefront of this knowledge. This article explores what’s going on with AI in the legal academy and posits that law schools should teach and integrate advanced technologies to prepare their graduates to practice in the artificial intelligence age.

The American Bar Association notes in the Model Rules of Professional Conduct that lawyers should be aware of changing technology in their relevant practice, including the risks associated with it. Law schools are taking varied approaches because of the vagueness in defining technological competence. Very few law schools in the United States have issued institutional policies about the use of AI and instead leave it up to professorial discretion. On one end of the spectrum, the University of Michigan Law School took the lead in forbidding the use of generative AI for personal statements and application essays. The Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University took the opposite approach and is explicitly allowing the use of AI tools to help prospective students draft their applications. The University of California, Berkeley School of Law was the first to adopt a formal policy on the use of artificial intelligence in the classroom but is not disallowing ChatGPT from the application process.

Law school faculty are concerned with academic dishonesty in allowing students to use AI in their assignments. These concerns may have some weight. A study completed by law professors at the University of Minnesota found that chatbots generally did better on essays than on multiple-choice questions, but the essay performance was very inconsistent. ChatGPT had a C+ performance, which is enough to earn a law degree, but it would be placed on academic probation. So, these tools could help students with low-hanging fruit, but they cannot substitute hard work in law school. That is, humans are still the best detectors, evaluators and performers of legal work. Enough checks are in place to detect academic dishonesty, but at the end of the day, the legal profession and markets do a fine job of filtering underperformers. Hence, the greater concern is not whether students are using AI, but rather if they are not using AI given that the legal profession is already embracing it.

Understanding how artificial intelligence works can help educate students on how to use it to their best ability, rather than rely on it, which can lead to shallow research and writing skills. There is already a cottage industry of legal technology companies such as the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction and Law School AI that are using chatbots to assist students’ study of the law. Law schools should be jumping at the opportunity to bring all educational resources in-house rather than relying on students to teach themselves how to use these technologies accurately, appropriately and ethically.

Many law schools already offer a number of technology offerings through clinics and coursework. See Emily Janoski-Haehlen & Sarah Starnes, “The Ghost in the Machine: Artificial Intelligence in Law Schools,” 58 Duq. L. Rev. 3, 25 – 49 (2020). However, fewer are taking meaningful action to integrate AI into daily learning. Law schools should be educating students to reach a reasonable understanding of how AI works that goes beyond offering a single seminar on “AI and law” that is largely isolated from the rest of the law school curriculum. It’s one thing to teach students how legal systems will absorb the impact of artificial intelligence from a high-level policy perspective. But it’s another thing to develop a curriculum that systematically integrates AI into the study of law.

Thought leaders advocate baking AI into foundational courses such as legal research, reasoning and writing. Law schools already educate students on using Westlaw and LexisNexis and can expand on this by teaching students how to use their analytics platforms. While these offerings are relatively benign, where law schools need to shepherd students is in research. Relying solely on a machine to understand legal terms and connections may lead to ethical complications. These are tools designed to assist the attorney, not do all the work for them, so it’s imperative to learn how these technologies can serve us, and how they cannot serve us. Law schools can accomplish this by creating programs exploring the policy implications of emerging technologies; assisting underserved communities to expand access to legal knowledge; creating courses that explicitly teach and incorporate legal tech; hosting student competitions targeting the best ways to take advantage of AI in providing legal services (think moot court meets business school case competition); and more.

Talking about these issues will help, but the legal academy might need some uniformity in integrating AI. Elite law schools are offering coursework on the fundamentals of artificial intelligence and how it can be used in legal work, but the vast majority of students are not attending those institutions. Without some uniformity in curricula, we risk creating a huge disparity in the quality of practitioners entering the legal profession. For now, it might be advisable to allow law schools to experiment so we can determine best practices in developing curricula. However, at some point, the ABA will likely need to issue guidance on AI in law schools or explicitly condition institutional accreditation regarding the use of AI in legal training.

If there were ever a question, there is indeed room for AI in legal education. Lawyers will need to enter the workforce well aware of and equipped with a reasonable understanding of AI and its transformative impact. This must go beyond a theoretical understanding of these tools because AI is real and here to stay, likely to affect virtually on any area of social, legal, economic and political life today.•

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Conner Dickerson is a member of the Business Services & Litigation and Real Estate Services & Litigation practice groups at Cohen & Malad. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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