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AI: not the end of paralegals

updated on 30 April 2024

Reading time: four minutes

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” So said Mark Twain in 1897 when he read his own obituary, which was mistakenly published by a newspaper. Those in the legal sector might be beginning to feel the same. After at least a year of fear-inducing headlines about the demise of the profession thanks to the advent of AI, particularly large language models, such as ChatGPT, cracks have begun to show – highlighting that lawyers and high levels of legal expertise are unlikely to be made redundant anytime soon.

As the technology continues to develop, and be embraced by many, it’d indeed appear these reports of a death are greatly exaggerated. You need only look to the New York courts where we’ve seen lawyers caught out after using ChatGPT to help with a legal brief, which included fake case citations. Steven Schwartz, of law firm Levidow, Levidow & Oberman, admitted using the chatbot to research the brief in a client's personal injury case against airline Avianca.

Nevertheless, there’s no denying AI will certainly transform the legal profession, and it’s creating huge efficiencies for many already – taking on time-intensive tasks such as research, document review and contract analysis. However, it’s understandable that out of anyone in law, paralegals might be feeling a little nervous about how AI could transform their role, as they’re often entrusted with many of these tasks. Especially as it was recently reported that the creators of an AI-powered paralegal called ‘Lawrence’ passed part one of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination with a score of 74%. This is compared to the typical pass rate of between 55% and 65%.

However, an interesting experiment in the US tested how effective ChatGPT is in taking on a task typically given to a paralegal. Professor of Paralegal Studies at George Washington University Toni Marsh split her class into two groups and asked both to create a standard business contract. One group used ChatGPT and the other didn’t. The group using ChatGPT finished 15 minutes ahead of the other group – but they had to go back to ChatGPT several times with fresh prompts to ensure the final contract was valid. And this is how we believe AI can act as a great support to paralegals, but it certainly won’t take over the vital role paralegals play in a legal team. AI can’t work alone.

Crucially, paralegals also have the all-important human touch, which is invaluable in legal work, particularly when it comes to client handling and communication. AI can’t foster a human connection or build trust. Passing some of the more time-intensive tasks over to AI for support, should create more time for paralegals to build relationships with clients and lawyers and hone these all-important soft skills. Seeing AI as a helpful partner to do some of the heavy lifting (with careful supervision) will also create new opportunities for paralegals to concentrate on more engaging, interesting tasks and to learn new skills.

As shown in the George Washington University experiment, AI can do a great job at taking on certain tasks – but it still needs intelligent prompts. While the technology is good at quickly scouring through huge amounts of data, it still needs supervision to create meaning from the data it sources. Paralegals can apply their expertise and legal nuance to ensure the final document or research produced by AI isn’t just technically correct, but also appropriate and compliant with ethical and regulatory considerations. It’s also worth noting that the current iteration of ChatGPT can source data only from before January 2022, meaning any task that needs recent case citations or legislative updates will need a human eye.

So, while the end of paralegals thanks to AI is greatly exaggerated, those in the role should certainly consider how they can embrace the tech to support their day to day and which tasks could be offloaded to AI. Paralegals should also think about how to develop their legal tech skills – AI, like most tools, is only as good as the person operating it. Understanding how AI works, its limitations and how to craft efficient and effective prompts will certainly put paralegals on a positive, and steady, future path.

Anyone who’s used AI tools like Chat GPT will know that the quality of prompt a user inputs has an impact on the quality of results they receive. Refining a prompt to achieve exactly what you need can be time consuming, particularly for less straightforward tasks. I’d see lawyers continuing to instruct paralegals who build up expertise in prompting AI and who can translate lawyers’ instructions. Rather than replacing paralegals, AI will be used by them as an aid to completing tasks more efficiently.

Iain Brown is head of MLS legal delivery at Vario, Pinsent Masons.