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Does artificial intelligence have ability to replace family lawyers?

Wednesday, January 04, 2023 @ 3:01 PM | By Russell Alexander


Russell Alexander %>
Russell Alexander
In part one of our series (see below for link), we introduced the concept of “artificial intelligence” — or AI — which can produce computer-generated text and code on command.

Conversations about the limits of AI have come to the forefront, with the recent rollout of the latest version of ChatGPT, the OpenAI chatbot. Although its predecessors have been around for awhile, this latest ChatGPT edition crosses a new threshold in usefulness and quality.

As a result, the media is full of fun little illustrations of its capabilities: everything from helping to write questions to ask during an Elon Musk interview, to penning instructions in biblical verse on how to remove peanut butter from a VCR.

But there’s been a bit of fear mongering, too. ChatGPT has sparked a lot of real-life conversations about how AI systems might change commerce and the business world as we see it.

Is AI capable of replacing family lawyers?

One of those discussions explores whether AI is sophisticated and accurate enough to take over the role of family lawyers in Canada and elsewhere.

We don’t think so.

That’s mainly because legal reasoning is based on logic, discernment and critical thinking. In contrast, AI reasoning is based on statistics and probabilities. Plus, lawyers in every field of law have certain esoteric duties and obligations towards their own clients and towards the public. These include overriding ethical, fiduciary and competency obligations to clients and the public. These can never be replaced by AI-assisted initiatives.

But more importantly, and no matter how advanced and sophisticated AI and other technology becomes, it can never even come close to approximating the proverbial “personal touch.” For clients, family law processes are emotionally fraught and confusing. There are many steps and aspects that require a real person to be on the other end of them — namely an experienced family lawyer who can understand and relate to clients as only a fellow human being can do.

To replace a lawyer entirely with a robotic AI simulation only risks degrading and depersonalizing the legal process even further.

What can AI contribute, though?

To be fair, this is not to say that AI can never be part of the family law system. In fact, it presents a great opportunity for improving legal services, because (among other things) AI can be used to:

  • Serve a gatekeeping role, by adopting an intuitive question-and-answer format that guides users to tailored — but still rudimentary — legal advice or resources.
  • Perform some of the more mundane “grunt work” tasks (like routine form-filling for litigation), that are currently performed by junior lawyers, law clerks or students.
  • Speed up some aspects of legal research, contract review, court filings, e-discovery and document assembly.
  • Help with certain steps that can lead to dispute resolution.

On a day-to-day basis, AI might also assist lawyers with drafting simple legal documents, analyzing financial statements and performing case management tasks.

It’s safe to say that for now, AI lends itself well to a hybrid model, where lawyers can exploit its benefits to reduce costs and heighten efficiency, while still providing tailored, fine-tuned legal advice that addresses each client’s unique needs.

Improving access to justice

The good news is that if AI takes over some of the routine functions previously being done by family lawyers and clerks, it will actually make the entire justice system more efficient and cost-effective. Lawyers can be freed up to concentrate on higher-level tasks that truly take advantage of their expertise, experience and skill set. This includes giving tailored advice to clients, negotiating domestic contracts, settling family law disputes and going to court if necessary.

This shift in the allocation of work can only improve efficiency and access to justice.

What’s in store for future?

Improvements in AI and other computer technologies are revolutionizing many sectors of business and society, including the family justice system. All lawyers should be poised to adopt and take advantage of these new tools to complement existing methods.

After all, it was only a short time ago that the family law system in Ontario was entirely paper based, with hard copy court filings required in virtually all proceedings. Now, lawyers have warmly embraced the benefits of using digital materials and remote hearings. So it’s not a huge leap to make AI the next uncharted frontier to be explored.

This is part two of a three-part series. In the final instalment, we will examine whether AI-based systems could replace judges and other legal decision-makers. Part one: Will artificial intelligence (AI) replace family lawyers?; part three: Can artificial intelligence replace judges?

Russell Alexander is the founder of Russell Alexander Collaborative Family Lawyers, whose focus is exclusively family law, offering pre-separation legal advice and assisting clients with family related issues including: custody and access, separation agreements, child and spousal support, division of family property, paternity disputes and enforcement of court orders. For more information, visit www.RussellAlexander.com.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, The Lawyer’s Daily, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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