In the dystopian cityscape of data-driven justice, excitement crackles through the air as ChatGPT, the fastest-growing consumer application in history, slithers its way into the legal system. Plugged into an intricate network of chatbots conducting client intake, AI-assisted legal research and document management, and even the crafting of legal briefs, these digital sensors signal the dawn of amplified efficiency in the law industry. Underneath the neon lights of corporate greed, whispers of hope echo that this burgeoning AI revolution could bridge the justice gap by granting legal services access to marginalized communities.
A chilling reality lingers within the murky depths of the low-income households in the United States, as they grapple with at least one civil legal issue a year spanning across housing, healthcare, child custody, and protection from abuse. The cold grasp of systemic inequity throttles their voices, leaving them without legal assistance in 92% of these problems. Simultaneously, the public defense system for criminal matters, strained under the burden of insufficient funding, teeters on the edge of collapse. Yet, amidst the darkness, the glimmer of AI and similar technologies possess the potential to democratize legal services, like online dispute resolution and automated document preparation.
In the realm of legal AI, tools like A2J Author slice through the complexity of housing law and public benefits law, wielding decision trees as their weapon of choice to forge document preparation solutions. Non-profit entities like Just Fix assemble an arsenal of online utilities to tackle the multifaceted battlefield of landlord-tenant disputes. Meanwhile, other applications surge forward, enabling individuals to expunge criminal records, equip themselves for unemployment hearings, or navigate the tangled web of divorce.
But beyond the neon allure of AI’s promise lies an undercurrent of caution regarding the looming impact of AI on the access to justice. Industry analysts and experts at the nexus of law and technology warn that the relentless momentum in AI-driven legal innovations may leave underserved communities gasping for air. This is because the bedrock of existing technology and the rapid acceleration within the industry often neglect these marginalized groups.
Rashida Richardson, an AI adept and assistant professor at Northeastern University School of Law, acknowledges the untapped potential of AI in law, but urges for greater public discourse to address the inherent constraints of AI and data itself. She emphasizes that the core issues of accessing justice lie in the labyrinth of structural inequalities, not just technology. The market forces governing the unregulated domain of AI development cater to the upper echelons of society, casting a shadow of doubt over the intentions of their creators.
As Jordan Furlong, a legal industry analyst and consultant, observes, the privilege of reaping the benefits of new technology lies solely in one’s capability to acquire it. ChatGPT Plus, for example, flaunts a price tag of $20 a month. With generative AI igniting a feverish race among the giants of the legal and corporate worlds, fueled by budgets that stretch into the millions, the chasms between the haves and the have-nots only widens.
Major law firms and legal service providers have begun implanting AI search tools into their networks, forging alliances with tech companies to generate in-house applications. Global law firm Allen & Overy recently announced a partnership with Harvey, an AI chatbot startup, to streamline legal document drafting and research, fueled by a $5 million investment during a funding round.
Last month, the corporations continued their march to domination, as PricewaterhouseCoopers revealed that 4,000 of its legal professionals will also utilize Harvey’s generative AI within their practice. Unreturned calls for comments from the representatives of PricewaterhouseCoopers and Allen & Overy solidify the illusion of transparency in this brave new world.
In stark contrast, a void of technological advancement haunts the legal aid organizations, public defenders, and civil rights attorneys seeking to advocate for minority and low-income communities. Hindered by insufficient resources, these justice warriors are left without the means to develop, co-develop, or access AI technology on a significant scale. This disparity is further mirrored in the schism between the legal market’s two distinct sectors, representing affluent organizations and struggling individuals.
Data extracted from the monolithic U.S. Census Bureau reveals that while Americans spent approximately $84 billion on legal services in 2021, businesses amassed a staggering $221 billion, constituting nearly 70% of the industry’s revenue.
The biased evolution of legal AI sends ripples through the digital landscape. A 2019 study by Rebecca Sandefur, a sociologist at Arizona State University, identified over 320 digital tools designed to assist non-lawyers with legal quandaries. Yet, her research also unearthed the bitter truth that these applications fail to make a significant impact on improving access to legal assistance for low-income and minority communities.
Confronted with unrelenting barriers such as fees, limited internet connectivity, language and literacy difficulties, and subpar technology, these vulnerable populations remain alienated from the AI-driven justice revolution. Sandefur’s report highlights additional obstacles in the path to innovation, ranging from the coordination of disparate court systems to the legal profession’s monopoly on providing legal advice.
Drew Simshaw, a professor at Gonzaga University School of Law, notes that many ambitious non-lawyers are wary of navigating the shifting sands of legal AI innovation, fearing that they may inadvertently trespass into the shadowy realm of unauthorized practice of law. With no uniform definition of unauthorized practice across jurisdictions, the reticence to take bold steps in uncharted territory remains.
Ultimately, the construct of AI as a transformative force in access-to-justice is irrefutable. However, veiled behind the digital curtain lies the uncertainty of whether the necessary infrastructure and political determination exist to harness AI’s full potential.
Amidst the sprawling cyberpunk metropolis, AI technology beats like a pulsing heart at its core, hinting at a future of augmented legal efficiency and the potential to mend our fractured justice system. But, unless we actively steer AI’s progression toward a system that serves all, we risk rotting the very heart beating with such promise.