Thoughts from the ABA Legal Tech Show

I love tech shows. They almost always have a quirky tech failure. This year it was the registration system that failed. Less than an auspicious start. But, the conference isn’t really about technology for me. It’s about people. I think that the smart conference attendee knows that you could get a better look at most of the tech by searching on YouTube. This is where the creative minds come together. And, on that account, the conference has been a success! It is so great to get caught up with friends who I haven’t seen in ages and to meet new colleagues. I am a firm believer in community. The legal tech community has been good to me over the years.

Substantively, my path through the conference has focused on artificial intelligence, which is where I typically focus my attention. In my perspective, AI is a very special kind of tool—an idea that I heard more than one speech express. What makes AI special is that it is an intentional augmentation of our cognitive ability. That’s special. Only human beings seem to be able of augmenting their cognition. Other creatures may have tools and even some limited speech, but only humans intentionally modify their cognitive faculties. We are cyborgs by nature.

Evidence of this is as close at hand as the pencil. Writing is the initial cognitive enhancement, made more powerful by the printing press, first as a manual mechanism and later as a tool for industrial production. Writing allowed human beings to augment the mind, and so the pencil shares something in common with machine learning computers today.

The impact of this on the law is also not new. The earliest laws were spoken dictates of the king. The memory of the first written laws was still part of the culture of Athen in the time of Plato and Aristotle. Socrates, himself, was illiterate and suspicious of literacy in similar terms as our current suspicions about cell phones.

Writing the law changed it. The king, for example, could use the law as a symbol of power by placing it, set in stone, in the market square. But, it also had the unexpected power to bind the king as well to his own words. The rule of law has its origins in this. Although the history of written law is uneven—the Goths, for example, had an oral legal tradition—the lasting influence on the way law existed (its “ontology” to use a technical philosophical term).

The practice of law has been influenced as well. Law in the age of Abe Lincoln, before the commercial press, was practiced with much less regard for precedent, and certainly not for the latest case that was heard in the last few hours. It took weeks or months for news of a new case to reach the frontier, after all.

So, AI is not new in this sense. It is the continuation of a long process of human mind augmentation. And, we can learn from the past. Just as the ancient Greek culture was transformed by the new cognitive faculties that writing brought about, so too will our society change with AI. Change in the law is inevitable, even as writing captured the minds of the Greeks despite Socrates arguments against it. And, we will be surprised by how it rearranges the power structures in our society. On its face, we talk about the potential to use AI for the good by extending low-cost legal services to populations who never had access to the law in the past. What will that mean in the long run? Will the power elites permit this new shift? What avenues for resistance will arise? How will the role of law in social change over time? We have many thoughts on these issues, but little guidance on how to think about them.

AI will change us too, as writing did. For a child to learn how to read requires the growth of brain tissue that connects two adjacent modules. The practice of reading shapes the physical anatomy of the brain. I am told that a neuroanatomist can identify the language group that was spoken in life by examining a brain on a lab tray. Truly, we are cyborgs, augmenting ourselves to cope with living in the world. AI will help us do that too. So, I fully believe that AI is here to stay, and with its help, we will be too.

Lawyers should not resist this change. AI can help us represent our clients more effectively, see new potential in the business side of the practice, and manage our lives with greater intention. These are all goods. And since AI is changing the whole of society, not just the law, a competent lawyer of the future will need sufficient expertise and skills in AI to understand the social and cultural issues that drive change. AI will be as common as a pencil. Imagine a lawyer today who was fearful of the written word and could not craft a sentence. It worked in an oral legal tradition, but not in a written one. And, in the future, a lawyer who doesn’t know how to use AI tools will be as obsolete as a lawyer who didn’t know how to find the most recent precedents. The best lawyers will seek out the cognitive enhancements that give them the best edge for coping with the demands of practice in an increasingly complex legal environment.


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