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Lawyers’ ‘skill sets need to shift’ with the rise of ChatGPT

Over the past three years, the profession has undergone a momentous technological change. This, in turn, means that lawyers’ professional skill sets need to evolve to keep up.

user iconLauren Croft 13 February 2023 NewLaw
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OpenAI’s chatbot, ChatGPT, has made global headlines this year, with artificial intelligence (AI) technologies set to have a massive impact on lawyers, law students and the regulatory landscape.

But there are a number of risks associated with AI technologies, particularly when used within workplaces.

And while ChatGPT can be a fantastic tool for those in a number of different roles, it does not appear likely that it will wholly replace lawyers — at least not yet, with concerns raised around the accuracy of the program.


Despite this, new technologies and AI programs are increasingly and continually impacting the legal profession, something which Clayton Utz IP and technology partner Simon Newcomb said has been happening for some time now.

“Digital technologies have been progressively changing the way that lawyers, like other knowledge workers, operate for many years. The rise of generative AI technologies, like ChatGPT, may accelerate the rate of change with new abilities to automate more routine activities and access better tools to work more effectively.

“AI is far from being able to replace lawyers. For now, we see it more as an augmentation tool rather than providing fully automated solutions. For example, we are experimenting with generative AI for legal tasks like drafting clauses, creating summaries, making content more succinct and redrafting content in plain English,” he explained.   

“Generative AI will also impact on practice management and development. We are looking at early use cases in the area of marketing communications such as press releases and emails, simple pitch documents, in HR with position descriptions and advertisements, and in IT with simple coding.”

As such, lawyers will need to adapt to a changing environment, particularly with the rise of AI technologies.

Baker McKenzie’s chair of the Australian offices and technology, media and telecommunications partner, Adrian Lawrence, said that successful practices would be able to utilise the benefits of these technologies to “drive efficiency and to innovate, alongside their clients, as to how they provide legal services”.

“Like all professionals, lawyers are constantly needing to understand and adapt to new technologies. Typically, technological advances are best seen as tools [that] assist lawyers to advise their clients, to interact efficiently and effectively with counterparties, courts, regulators and others and to operate their own businesses. Clearly, some of these advances will be more fundamental — and potentially disruptive — to existing working practices and business models than others,” he said.

“It’s also important to remember that some technological advances will affect different practice areas in different ways and at different times. For example, advances in AI in recent years have already meant that large-scale document review exercises (for example, in the context of a document-heavy discovery process in a dispute) look very different now than they did 10 or even five years ago.”

At Gilbert + Tobin, a “fundamental requirement” of a modern lawyer is someone who can adopt (and adapt to) best work practices by leveraging the right technology, emphasised partner and chief innovation officer Caryn Sandler, who has already seen an uptake of this kind of technology.  

“There remains plenty of opportunities for legal teams of all shapes and sizes to embrace and harness existing technology solutions (coupled with process improvement) to deliver better client outcomes,” she emphasised.  

“Similarly for in-house teams, there is an increased uptake of a range of technology solutions, particularly of matter management and contract lifecycle management tools. GCs and legal heads understand that digital transformations are needed to equip their teams with the right technology, skills and processes. I’m also seeing lawyers becoming more aligned with their respective IT functions and using innovative ways to better utilise the available solutions within their organisation’s broader tech stack.”

In addition to being used to support internal functions, AI technologies are also creating more efficiencies for clients and paving the way for innovation.

“I see technology being used to better support clients. I also see lawyers who enjoy their work more, naturally develop new digital skill sets and embrace an innovative mindset — and each of these outcomes then feeds back into and supports that digital transformation at large across the legal profession,” Ms Sandler added.

“To support this transformation, I see law firm capability and development teams rapidly adjusting their induction and continuous education programs to incorporate digital skills, literacy and specific legal technology training. The rise of technology in law is also reflected by the arrival of numerous legal technology electives in both Australian and overseas universities.”

However, universities across Australia have already expressed concerns about the bot being used to cheat within schools, with a recent panel discussion at UNSW emphasising the importance of teaching students to use AI tools “ethically, morally and legally”.

Swinburne Law School senior lecturer and LLB course director Dr Mitchell Adams said that this also means that the professional skill set of law students and young lawyers will evolve, with an increased focus on digital literacy moving forward.

“Increased innovation and competition within the profession will lead to the greater adoption of AI applications. Initially, this might focus on productivity gains and later evolve to the use of generative AI in ways that create new products and services.

“Trust in the outputs of applications (like ChatGPT) must largely be resolved for the technologies and methods to be fully adopted. Lawyers are likely to apply their critical-thinking skills and play a crucial role in the quality assurance of AI-generated work. Increased awareness of the weaknesses inherent in early AI models will inform this work,” he said.

“We are at the beginning of a technological shift, so our skill sets need to shift with it. As a result, a greater focus on digital literacies will include technical literacy (knowing how to use technology), information literacy (the ability to find and use information in a digital world) and critical literacy (reflectively questioning the context in which digital artefacts are made and used). All of these will be required when using AI.”

Mr Newcomb echoed a similar sentiment — and said that in addition to professional skill sets changing from the outset, lawyers working in a range of different practice areas would need to upskill.

“As AI technologies improve in generating relevant information, there may be more emphasis on the higher order and human skills of lawyers like designing solutions, critical review of content, creating truly novel content, abstract reasoning, critical analysis, strategic and commercial judgement, and understanding emotions,” he said.

“Lawyers will also need to continue to adapt in how they apply the law to new situations where technology is involved. AI has an impact on many areas of law, such as governance, compliance, intellectual property, discrimination, privacy, workplace relations and contracts. Law reform will continue to occur to adapt to new issues, and lawyers will need to continue upskilling in relevant areas.”

Finally, when asked how the legal profession can begin to adapt to suit ChatGPT and other new technologies, Mr Newcomb said that as the technology improves, legal service firms and larger organisations could begin to create new AI models that have better capabilities in specific domains.

“Large language models, like ChatGPT, can be ‘fine-tuned’ to have additional legal capabilities. For example, there is a version of Google’s BERT AI called Legal-BERT that has been fine-tuned to have a better understanding of language used in a legal context. Existing data held by lawyers or other organisations could be used to train new models, although that would require overcoming a range of barriers, including client confidentiality, privacy and intellectual property,” he added.

“The ability for lawyers to create these types of tools potentially creates some new business models for law firms. Law firms could differentiate themselves by the capability of their AI solutions. It could change the way that lawyers charge for some legal services, such as charging a subscription fee to access a particular AI service.  There may be new roles for lawyers in training AI models.” 

And this “significant digital transformation” isn’t far from being the norm in firms, Ms Sandler warned.

While the current capabilities of ChatGPT are fascinating, there remains a range of ethical, legal and practical challenges that the legal industry needs to navigate before the use of such AI becomes an everyday practice,” she said.

“At the same time, the profession absolutely needs to be forward-looking and anticipate the potential implications of the imminent next wave of AI offerings. The big change might not be here just yet, but my bet is a mainstream shift isn’t too far away.”