Laws Are Catching Up With ChatGPT
The rollout of ChatGPT in late 2022 caused a social media sensation. After launch, registrations for the service quickly climbed into the millions. Bloggers and financial analysts predicted a new generation of search technology and impending doom for Google and other long-established online search services.
But what is ChatGPT, and what’s all the fuss about? And what might the fuss mean for lawyers, their clients, and the legal profession?
What ChatGPT is and What it Does
ChatGPT was developed by OpenAI, a research laboratory dedicated to artificial intelligence (AI). It is a chatbot that relies on a language model and an enormous text database developed by OpenAI over several years.
A user registers an account at the OpenAI website, navigates to the ChatGPT page, and enters a question into the ChatGPT query box. There’s no need to guess the most effective search terms, or constantly refine the search to get more relevant results. You simply type out a question and ChatGPT answers it.
Instead of a long list of sites and pages that may or may not be relevant to your search, ChatGPT returns a paragraph in standard English that sets out the answer to your question. If the answer is lengthy, the user can ask the bot to summarize it. If needed, the answer can also be translated. The user can ask the chatbot to go into further detail or add information. It all takes the form of question and answer, much like a routine human-to-human dialogue.
AI and the Legal Profession
There are many applications for AI in the legal profession. AI can be used to automate the creation of contracts, pleadings, briefs, and other legal documents. This can save staff time and reduce the risk of errors or non-compliance with court rules and procedures. AI can analyze contracts and identify potential issues or areas of concern, helping lawyers to negotiate more effectively and reducing the risk of disputes.
AI can quickly search and analyze legal documents. For example, a lawyer researching sentencing in underage DUI cases can query cases nationwide and instantly, a list of relevant decisions linked to online records. Suppose the response to the query is voluminous. In that case, an AI program can summarize the results or search for patterns and trends in the documents, making it easier for lawyers to review and classify them.
Instead of outsourcing translation, a law firm handling an international case can have an AI application quickly translate documents for the use of non-native speakers and associates or opposing firms in foreign countries. In theory, AI could also be used to assist lawyers in preparing for trials by analyzing past cases and predicting outcomes, and providing recordkeeping, scheduling, and stenography services to the court during trials.
ChatGPT vs. Lawyers
ChatGPT is not the first application of AI to legal-oriented software. Law firm websites have been offering chatbots for years to screen potential clients and respond to basic inquiries. In 2015, DoNotPay launched as a legal services chatbot that advertises itself as ” The World’s First Robot Lawyer.” Though DoNotPay was initially created to help site visitors appeal their parking tickets, the site has since expanded its services. Visitors can use DoNotPay to file lawsuits, serve notice on copyright violators, negotiate lower phone and internet rates, and deal with customer service bureaucracies.
However, DoNotPay had to work with online forms and could offer only limited responses to queries input by site visitors. ChatGPT is a different animal, one that may have lawyers and clerks who handle routine legal matters searching for alternative employment.
The cause? One of the most common reasons to seek out a lawyer is for basic legal advice. In an immigration matter, for example, a permanent resident interested in applying for citizenship may want some guidance through the process. A query to ChatGPT can outline the application process, describe the relevant agencies, and guide the user to the appropriate website where forms can be filled out. There would be no need for either phone or in-person contact with an attorney.
Issues of Accuracy and Liability
Problems, of course, may arise if a user needs very specific information or data. ChatGPT is designed to respond based on how a question is phrased, and relies on a large database of text drawn from the internet and the natural language programming carried out by its designers. It’s more of a conversational tool than a knowledge database.
ChatGPT can easily misinterpret or incorrectly answer a question posed. For example, in a recent query, ChatGPT responded: “There is no fee to apply for citizenship. However, if your application is approved, you will be required to pay a fee for the naturalization ceremony.”
Wrong answer. Anyone who relied on it, such as the hopeful permanent resident above, would lose time or worse dealing with the immigration authorities. Using a chatbot service such as ChatGPT to generate legal advice for clients opens up a law office to complaints of inattention to detail and incompetence. A client that suffers damages as a result of incorrect information or advice could subject the law office to a liability claim, making the use of ChatGPT for some functions a risky proposition.
ChatGPT and the Law Office
There are still many potential uses for ChatGPT that would relieve lawyers of some of the more time-consuming tasks demanded by complex cases and trial preparation. For lawyers, of course, time is money, and by shortening the hours required to handle such cases, ChatGPT could streamline the process and save clients billable hours and sizable fees.
For an upcoming deposition in a criminal case, for example, a defendant’s lawyer could ask ChatGPT for a list of questions that would be relevant to the charges involved in the case, including questions that might contribute to a dismissal of the charges or a lessening of the sentence.
ChatGPT can also be used as a research tool. A query to the platform, for example, could return relevant cases that set precedent for an upcoming trial. A simple query to ChatGPT could also generate important court documents, such as the complaints that are filed at the initiation of a case, as well as the trial briefs that outline one party’s evidence, arguments, and theory of the case law.
By refining queries to ChatGPT, a lawyer could instruct the platform on relevant points to cover in the brief and ask it to include previous court decisions and precedents. The document that results could be tailored to the case at hand, with the lawyer adding references to the parties, the evidence, and testimony already given in depositions and witness interviews.
The brief could also be shortened or summarized at the request of the lawyer. The process of generating a trial brief through ChatGPT or a similar AI platform could save considerable hours that a trial lawyer needs to devote to research, writing, correcting, and revising the document.
ChatGPT can also quickly generate key documents, such as business contracts. The user would give the platform the names of the parties, a description of the property being sold or exchanged, the terms of the transaction, and any contingencies that are relevant to the sale. The contract could be further refined to include any provisions required by state or local law.
Although boilerplate language has always been available in standardized forms, this process would decrease the time typically required to input information such as names, addresses, legal property descriptions, and so forth.
ChatGPT can also provide a platform for communication with clients. By setting up a webcam, a microphone, and a chat room on the platform, a lawyer can open a video chat to discuss cases with associates, connect with other law firms, and keep clients up-to-date on their cases without resorting to phone calls or e-mail. Relevant files can be dragged and dropped into the chat room instead of being sent as e-mail attachments.
A platform such as ChatGPT may also save time and costs by serving as a liaison with a local or federal court. The e-filing of documents has become commonplace in the US court system, but the practice ensnares many firms in a complicated web of deadlines and different procedural rules, down to the font size used on pleadings and the formatting of signature blocks and captions (the information showing at the top of submitted filings).
A legal chatbot system, with all of this procedural data available, could in theory be used to ensure court documents are submitted on time and correctly in any court that accepts electronic filing.
Copyright and Liability
Lawyers employing ChatGPT to generate trial documents and other content must keep intellectual property and copyright issues in mind. The issue regarding the quality of the content and the similarity of AI-generated text to human-generated text has already been raised. The question of who legally owns the responses generated by AI chatbots has not yet been answered. Is it the party who prompted the material through their series of questions or the owner of the program itself? Can the material be copyrighted, and if so, by whom?
As it stands, copyright law holds that anything copyrighted must be created by a human and must be an original work fixed in a tangible form, whether digital or physical. A tangible form could be a book or a newspaper. It could also be a document generated by a human author in a program such as Microsoft Word and kept in a digital format, such as a blog post or an e-mail attachment. ChatGPT does not yet claim copyright over the text it generates, nor has anyone attempted to copyright a chatbot-generated document.
Who Owns the Text?
AI-generated text is “created” at the prompting of a human user, who poses the queries that shape the response. From this point of view, the text’s owner would be the user, yet it’s the program that “creates” and “fixes” the material in the tangible form of a response. As no one has yet attempted to copyright a wholly AI-generated work, the courts haven’t yet dealt with the question of copyright and IP ownership.
Another copyright-related issue would be infringement or the AI platform’s use of copyrighted material without permission. In just one foreseeable case, a law student facing a looming deadline for a summary of current immigration law may simply put a few queries to ChatGPT or another program and have the work copied out and correctly formatted within minutes. By drawing on its own database of material from the Internet, ChatGPT may inadvertently copy text taken directly from another author and relieve the student of any need to carry out original research.
Who would be the liable party in such a case of infringement: the student, the chatbot, or both? The proper, ethical, and legal use of ChatGPT and similar programs in academia, as well as the legal profession, has yet to be worked out.
Misuse, Misinterpretation, and Mistakes
Another legal issue surrounding the use of ChatGPT would be the liability for any misuse of the platform and any damages it may cause to lawyers, their clients, or the public. A law office using ChatGPT as an information source may submit a pleading or a motion containing erroneous statements or an invalid interpretation of case law. Would a client who loses a case for that reason have the basis for a malpractice lawsuit?
Finally, there are the usual risks of using the internet for communication, file sharing, document transmission, and any other purpose that requires linking private systems to a public network. There’s the possibility of malicious actors infecting the platform with a virus that is then transmitted to users, or hackers attacking the chatbot and corrupting its data.
AI-assisted research and writing is still a new field, one that holds major promise for the legal profession, as well as media reporting, academic work, scientific research, and any other sector that requires research and analysis of information. There are problems and questions to be worked out, and issues that haven’t yet arisen. ChatGPT and its future imitators and competitors may outshine conventional search engines, but they may also create as many issues as they solve.