Much of this article is taken from a more comprehensive AI eBook. Click here to view it.

The ethical case for evolving with legal technology

Once again, we are at a watershed moment in the legal industry, when a technology milestone marks the separation between eras in legal practice like the word processing, online legal research, and e-discovery before it. This is the mainstream adoption of artificial intelligence in legal practice.

Now that AI is built into everyday aspects of our personal lives, it’s no longer a cutting-edge technology for early adopters. In fact, it’s been a part of legal technology for years, ever since Westlaw incorporated Natural Language processing, an AI technology, into its search functionality in the mid-1990s.  

This implementation made the experience of searching for legal answers easier and more accessible. Users were no longer limited to complex Boolean search queries and could now search with human language. It was easy to adopt the new natural way of searching for answers, so users might not have realized they were using artificial intelligent  technology. It didn’t seem artificially intelligent, it seemed smart. But still, there were lawyers who resisted that change and every technological advance in legal practice before it.

Change is inevitable, changing is ethical

Legal AI, like the other major tech advancements in the legal industry, is quickly becoming an inevitability, not a trend.

This means adoption of legal AI technology becomes an ethical decision. If you don’t adopt and implement AI in your practice, are you providing the best possible service, efficiency, and effectiveness to your clients?

If you ask state bar associations, which are typically conservative and measured in issuing guidelines for bar-admitted attorneys, the answer seems to be, “No. If you don’t adopt AI technology, you’re not serving your clients as well as you could.”

As we discuss in our eBook, “Not All Legal AI Is Created Equal,” more than half of all state bar associations have adopted a duty of technology competence, with some form of the language in Comment 8 of ABA Model Rule 1.1 pertaining to technology:

“To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology, engage in continuing study and education, and comply with all continuing legal education requirements to which the lawyer is subject.”

Since AI technology is part of most people’s everyday personal lives and is at the core of industry standards such as e-discovery and online legal research, it is no longer arguable that artificial intelligence is “relevant technology” in legal practice. It won’t be long for the remaining state bar associations to join in requiring attorneys to adopt, understand, and implement legal AI.

Ethical efficiency

Clients primarily care about service, cost, and results since they can directly experience and understand these aspects of their legal representation. But they typically don’t experience the underlying processes. For those, clients trust their lawyers to be diligent, ethical, and efficient. Since clients don’t often see or understand these processes (that’s what they’re paying their lawyers for, after all), bar associations place high value and scrutiny on how lawyers conduct themselves with these processes in order to protect the reputation and trust of legal professionals.

If a lawyer refused to use email, word processing, e-filing, or e-discovery in favor of doing things the old-fashioned way, they would face serious ethical risks and penalties for overbilling clients, providing negligent representation, and a host of other infractions.

Soon, if not already, the same could be said of lawyers who don’t leverage legal AI for their clients.

Ethical accuracy

E-filing, e-discovery, and big data have increased the expectation of lawyers to accommodate and work in the digital realm. But it’s not enough to process past data that’s supplied, lawyers will need to work closer to real time.

Keeping abreast with ever-changing statutes, regulations, and caselaw will require more comprehensive and up-to-date monitoring of legal issues in order to provide the best possible legal representation. Only AI solutions can provide this level of vigilance. You wouldn’t practice according to decade-old rules of procedure, and keeping up with the pace of caselaw and  fast-changing regulations will mean keeping up the new pace of practice in the AI age.

Ethical Considerations of AI in the Legal Field

AI in the legal industry isn’t new. Neither are the risks of not implementing it in your practice. The earlier you adopt and implement AI technology in your legal practice, the better you can serve your clients. It’s not just a business matter anymore, it’s an ethical matter. While there are ethical requirements that AI presents challenges for (such as the duties of confidentiality and supervision), there are also ethical risks in NOT adopting appropriate tools as they evolve.”

Learn more about what makes a good legal artificial intelligence solution by downloading our eBook, “Not All Legal AI Is Created Equal.


David Curle, Director, Technology and Innovation Platform supports Thomson Reuters’ Legal business with research and thought leadership about the legal technology and innovation ecosystem, and the changing legal services industry.  Prior to joining Thomson Reuters in 2013, he led coverage of the global legal information market for the research and analysis firm Outsell, Inc., tracking industry performance and trends.  He is a regular contributor to the Legal Executive Institute blog and speaker at legal industry events.  He has a JD from the University of Minnesota Law School and a BA in History from Lawrence University. 

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