AI and Law: What are the Ethical Considerations?

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You’d be hard pressed to find an aspect of your life that isn’t being impacted by artificial intelligence (AI). From how we consume information to the way we work, AI technology has seeped into our daily lives in countless ways. 

Lately, AI has started to extend its influence in the realm of law. Legal professionals are increasingly tapping into the technology to work smarter and automate tedious tasks, such as legal research and document review. 

This is all incredibly exciting for legal professionals. Yet, as with any novel technology, there are ethical considerations that must be addressed before its use becomes widespread.

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In this blog post, we’ll explore the four key ethical considerations that arise when using AI in law—bias and fairness, accuracy, privacy, and legal responsibility and accountability—and what lawyers can do to address them.

What are the ethical issues of AI in law?

For all the promise that AI holds, there are ethical issues surrounding its use among lawyers.

We’ll discuss the ethical concerns surrounding AI use in law, but certainly one of the biggest considerations is around bias.

AI technology relies on algorithms to analyze vast amounts of data and uncover trends.

If the data it draws from is biased, the results it produces will also be biased. This matters for any industry, but it can be especially detrimental for the legal profession as it can undermine the principles, justice, and equal treatment under the law.

When lawyers—or any legal professional—relies on biased information, it can lead to unjust outcomes and compromised legal representation. When a decision has the potential to change the trajectory of people’s lives, such bias is simply unacceptable.  

Along with bias, AI can also create issues around:

  • Accuracy
  • Privacy
  • Responsibility and accountability

Let’s discuss each of these issues in more detail below. 

Ethics for lawyers

Ethics has always been central to the legal industry. As stewards of the law, lawyers play an integral part in maintaining justice and must always exhibit the highest standards of ethical conduct.

One way this is enforced is through the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, a set of ethics rules for legal professionals that was created by the American Bar Association in 1983. Their ultimate purpose is to protect the public and maintain the integrity of the legal profession.

That said, lawyers are also bound by ethics around competence, due diligence, communication, and supervision—and many of these characteristics will inform how they use AI.

A person standing in front of the words caution written on the ground

For instance, lawyers must be accountable for how they use technology to guide their legal decisions and carefully assess any bias inherent in algorithms before using it to inform cases. 

Depending on your jurisdiction, there may also be formal ethics opinions addressing the use of AI—or technology, generally—in the legal industry. Be sure to confirm the existence of these ethics opinions or guidelines and how they apply to the use of AI technology for your practice. 

Read more on the topic of professional conduct for lawyers.

4 ethical considerations of AI and law

AI has the power to transform the legal industry. It holds tremendous promise to free legal professionals from the most time-consuming tasks, work more efficiently than ever, and empower them to focus on strategic projects that truly matter. Still, there are many ethical considerations of AI to keep in mind. Let’s explore each one in more detail.

Bias and fairness

As we mentioned above, AI uses trained algorithms to analyze vast amounts of data. These algorithms can collect biased historical information, which means that the AI system may also inadvertently produce biased results.

When this information is used in the practice of law, it can lead to unfair outcomes and perpetuate discrimination. 

One potential use case for AI within law is with large statistical models to provide decision-making guidance in recidivism.

For example, a judge using these models can receive an algorithmically generated risk score that tells them how likely a criminal is to reoffend. These models pull data from historical statistical information and compare against the idea of the fact pattern in front of them.

The problem is that predictive analytics can be discriminatory. If said algorithm pulls data from a district with a higher level of racial discrimination, said algorithms could perpetuate systemic biases and further racial injustice. 

We cover this ethical concern in more detail in our piece on AI use in courtrooms.

Before using AI, it’s critical that lawyers understand that this bias may exist and how it can impact outcomes in the legal profession and society as a whole. Beyond recognizing the limitations, lawyers using AI in their work must critically examine work products created by AI and identify any potential biases. 

Dart board with darts on the target

Accuracy

Accuracy is another significant issue when it comes to AI. In fact, the 2022 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report found that accuracy is the top barrier preventing many lawyers from adopting AI.

Algorithms can be difficult to interpret, and it can be challenging to understand how they arrive at their decisions or source information. As a result, many users are skeptical of it. If more technology firms are open about their AI technology, businesses will be able to better use this information to inform decisions and strategies.  

This is especially important in the legal field, where decisions can have significant consequences on people’s lives. Until this transparency is gained, this will likely be one area that will hold back the legal industry’s adoption of AI. 

Another area of ethical concern surrounding accuracy: translation. Accuracy is extremely important in translation, especially in legal matters. If courtrooms are leveraging AI to help instantaneously translate during a testimony, quality standards would need to be established to ensure that the language models are interpreting appropriately and accurately to ensure the integrity of the testimony.

Privacy

AI systems often rely on vast amounts of data, including highly sensitive and confidential information, and may store personal and conversation data. 

When using the technology, lawyers need to ensure that AI systems adhere to strict data privacy regulations. For example, lawyers using ChatGPT must familiarize themselves with its Privacy Policy and Terms of Use before using the service. Additionally, they must make sure that the data is only used for the specific purposes it was collected for.

Lawyers must also consider professional obligations relating to privacy and information-sharing when sharing any information with AI systems to ensure they are not running afoul of confidentiality obligations (to clients or other parties) or otherwise disclosing information improperly. 

Responsibility and accountability

Inaccurate information is a common pain point with AI.

When the technology is used in the legal field, it can be difficult to determine who is responsible for errors that crop up. As a result, lawyers must be proactive in establishing clear lines of responsibility and accountability when implementing AI in their firm. 

As a rule of thumb, this technology should be used as a complement to their work, and not a replacement. While AI can streamline time-consuming and mundane tasks, strategic decision-making, complex legal analysis, and legal counsel are all examples of responsibilities that it simply can’t take over.

At the end of the day, lawyers are responsible for their own work product—and maintaining their clients’ interests. While AI can help law firms streamline routine tasks, it is not a replacement for a lawyer’s training and wisdom. 

Read more about about AI and how lawyers are using it in our AI resource hub.

Final thoughts on the ethics around AI and Law

As the use of AI in law firms becomes increasingly widespread, it’s important that legal professionals address the ethical considerations surrounding it and ensure the technology is being used responsibly. 

In many ways, these issues aren’t vastly different from those that lawyers have faced before regarding emerging technologies. And if the past has taught us anything, it’s that the industry has and can continue to successfully adapt to these changes.

By doing so, lawyers will be able to enjoy the transformative benefits of AI—while maintaining an ethical practice at the same time.

 

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