Law professor Abdi Aidid on how AI could transform the legal system
Published on May 04, 2023
In our new Working Smarter series, we hear from AI experts about how they’re leveraging machine learning to solve interesting problems and dramatically change the way we work for the better.
Until recently, Abdi Aidid says trying to talk to lawyers about AI could feel like “pushing a rock uphill.” Then came ChatGPT. “People have sort of been shocked awake,” says Aidid. “Overnight, they suddenly can see that AI has these transformative possibilities.”
As a law professor at the University of Toronto, Aidid spends his time thinking about the implications of AI for both the law and the legal profession. As a technologist, he’s trying to find ways to apply these tools in positive ways. He was the vice president of legal research for Blue J—a legal tech company that uses machine learning to help lawyers review, analyze, and synthesize information faster and more efficiently than they could on their own—and still works as a strategist on the company’s leadership team.
“I’ve spent these last five years thinking and laying the groundwork for the moment we’re in now,” Aidid says. His new book The Legal Singularity: How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Law Radically Better, written with Blue J co-founder Benjamin Alarie, will be published in July. Aidid spoke with Work in Progress about the “professional advantage” for lawyers who embrace AI, making legal services more accessible, and how AI tools are already taking the drudgery out of legal work.
You've been working in this space for more than five years. How are people in the legal community responding to AI now compared to when you started?
The legal profession is a conservative profession. Not in a political sense, but they don't always try new things. There have not been the kind of radical updates that you see in other professions, and there's been a little bit of a recalcitrance around using new technologies. That institutional conservatism is something you saw five years ago—and with the proliferation of these large language models and generative AI, you're seeing the same conservatism today. But I think the case has been made for AI’s capability now where people actually have to reckon with it. And I think you're going to see some people who maybe previously just didn't know and now are excited about the possibilities.
For every one of those people, you might also see one person say these tools are not perfect, or not precise, that they still have a long way to go. To which we’ve been saying, and continue to say, can we improve on what we have? Because the law is imperfect. Lawyers do not meet the legal needs of the wider community in any way that you could consider effective. Courts are backlogged and clogged. Most people cannot afford legal services. And if technology can bring us to a place where we can meet our clients’ needs in ways that work better for them, and not just us, that might be a good thing.
There’s a great opportunity for lawyers who embrace these kinds of tools, too. Embracing technology is not purely an altruistic mission. It’s also an opportunity for lawyers to do their job better, faster, take on more work, and be more efficient and smarter. Why wouldn’t you? I can't imagine a revolt among accountants about using QuickBooks or Excel when it emerged, even though that tended to automate some things which they previously thought of as core functions.
You’ve said that these tools aren’t going to replace lawyers, but rather augment the skills and abilities they already have. Can you elaborate on why that’s an important distinction?
Because it's absolutely true. What AI technologies are doing right now is helping to automate and technologize some of the drudge work involved in legal services. People didn't go to law school to spend hours and hours trying to find the right precedent in case law. They didn't didn't go to law school to review endless documents and contracts. They wanted to have a rhetorical flourish in the courtroom. They wanted to provide strategic value to their client. They wanted to solve problems. If we can leverage technology and its computing power and its ability to synthesize data to do this kind of drudge work, we can actually free up our time to work on the creative side of things.
“AI technologies are helping to automate and technologize some of the drudge work involved in legal services.”
The people that are worried that lawyers are going to be replaced—especially lawyers who worry they’re going to be replaced—they’re taking too narrow a view, and really, too dim a view of what lawyers actually do. There's so much more to lawyering than the things that these technologies are currently capable of. We like to say that AI’s not going to replace lawyers, but lawyers that use AI are probably going to replace lawyers that don’t. Why wouldn’t you use a tool that gives you a professional advantage? As a matter of fact, it does.
At Blue J, we built a predictor tool that can tell you how future courts are likely to rule in new legal situations in tax and employment law. You describe the facts of your case, and in a matter of seconds, it will be able to synthesize all of the historical case law in that area. At most, I could read a sampling of all the material that could bear on a case. Technology can raise the floor immediately by starting me off at a point where it's already conducted a lot of the initial review. Why wouldn’t I embrace that?
In a world where people’s life, liberty, and property is often at stake, where you have high stakes legal issues, where you swear an oath to the public that you're going to uphold the rule of law, where people have acute legal needs that the profession is not actually serving—to me, that seems like the exact time to experiment and think through ways you can be more effective.
The thing I always try to stress is you still have your experience, your judgment, your intuition, your knowledge, and your ability to review all the same information as the technology. So this idea that it's going to perfectly supplant us—no. You'd be professionally negligent if you just gave your client a read-out from ChatGPT. A tool like that may get you to a draft faster, but you do the work. You make the judgment, the determinations. You perform the supervision and ensure that it all comports with your own sense of the law. That's the sense in which these kinds of tools are professional augmentation.
How has the sudden arrival of ChatGPT and large language models impacted the way you think about AI’s role in the legal space?
I think the real power is the demonstrative power. It is the first moment at which these advanced computing techniques are readily apparent to even the lay observer. Which means it's going to motivate a more sophisticated conversation than we've had so far about how to absorb these tools into our profession.
Beyond that, there’s a really great opportunity for some democratization. I see no reason why courts can’t have a terminal where someone could just type in their grievance and a generative AI tool like a ChatGPT could reframe it as a legal complaint. Because those procedural and formal barriers are just that: barriers. For some people, the difference between being able to pursue justice or not is whether you can get your complaint in the right shape so that it’s legible to the courts. To get technology to be able to do that—why not? If someone has a landlord-tenant issue, but they don’t have the language skills or the education or the resources, why can’t technology help them reframe and reposition their grievance—that they know best—in the formal framework that the law demands? That seems like a good outcome to me.
What’s another example of how these tools could make legal services more accessible to communities that have had difficulty accessing them in the past?
If you're a lawyer representing people who are accusing their employer of wrongful dismissal, or you're a personal injury lawyer, what limits you from taking on more representation is the amount of hours in the day, the amount of time it takes to get up to speed, the amount of time it takes to draft and design and file a complaint. If you're able to use technology to bring down some of those costs and the time-intensity of that work, you could actually serve more people more cheaply. I think many more people’s legal needs will be met in a world where lawyers can do their work faster, with fewer upfront costs.
You have a new book coming out with Blue J co-founder Benjamin Alarie called The Legal Singularity: How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Law Radically Better. What does that phrase “the legal singularity” mean?
The basic idea of the legal singularity is: through the proliferation of artificial intelligence in the law, you can get to a place where the law is knowable everywhere and on-demand. In our view, we're trending towards the practical elimination of legal uncertainty. It's a radical idea. Why? Think about how much uncertainty there is. There are so many areas of my life and yours that are governed by the law, and we don't actually know exactly what our rights and obligations are.
“Many more people’s legal needs will be met in a world where lawyers can do their work faster, with fewer upfront costs.”
If you're a business, that means sometimes you don't exactly know how to proceed. Let's say there's some unclear tax legislation or intellectual property laws. If we can get to a place where you can harness AI’s predictive capabilities to give you a quick sense of what's likely to happen in your situation, then you can structure your behavior accordingly. Then we can get to a place where people don't feel as insecure, where we can start to optimize legislation and law for the social outcomes that we want, where we can solve the access to justice crisis and people can get the kind of technological and professional support they need to navigate their complex legal problems, where we can start to shine a light on some of the inequities in our legal system as well.
What do you hope that people are going to take away from the book?
We’re optimistic about the prospects of AI in the law and what it’s going to mean, but we’re not endlessly optimistic. Our view is that it’s also producing some real questions that we need to resolve. There's an inexorable trend towards the use of AI in the law. It’s not going to stop. We can deny that it’s happening, or we can say, “Let's harness it for good in ways that benefit people—and let's be attentive to the risks and the potential harms now, so that we can anticipate, mitigate, and resolve them.”
We start from the core assumption that we're actually not in a good place in our legal system. If you're in a situation where people's needs are unmet; where laws are woefully under specified, and we don't always know what's going on; where you need a fancy, elaborate legal education just to put your finger on the law and what the law is, and then you need hours and hours more to actually determine what's going on—that's not a great place for us to be socially, politically, or economically. We have a window right now to harness emerging technologies in service of making that better.
What does all of this look like five years from now? Ten years from now?
I think that there's going to be an enforceable professional obligation to use AI technologies in the legal profession. I think that the economic case and the beneficial case for your clients is so strong that lawyers who continue to refuse will probably be seen by regulators as being out of step with people's needs. That's one thing.
The other thing, I think, is that there will probably be a proliferation of alternative legal service providers that disrupt the economic model of the law firm and the lawyer. There's going to be major pressure to embrace technologies. It's basically going to become an imperative just to survive. It’s going to force qualified attorneys to really rethink whether their model works. So there’s going to be a totally surmountable economic shock to the legal profession, and survival is going to depend on adaptation, as always.
I also think we’re going to see the makings of a generational shift. There's a generation of lawyers on the come up that are utterly unintimidated by these tools. And I think you’ll see their influence grow, and over time, they’ll be more of the default.
I’ve been in this space now for some years, and I’ve never tried to predict exactly what’s going to happen. You can’t. But I constantly say, be prepared for anything to happen. Because it happens faster than you think.
This interview has been edited and condensed.