At first blush, Bryan Cranston didn’t seem like an obvious keynote for ALM’s annual Legalweek conference. Even drawing from the ranks of Breaking Bad alumni, Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman would seem more at home with the collected legal nerds. But Cranston’s remarks on the opening morning of the show proved quite at home for the 2024 edition of the show because the art of acting was on full display.
This was the best attended Legalweek in years. Apparently generative AI is catnip for lawyers (or at least clients).
And they all came to evaluate the AI tools that will transform the profession right now. Instead, they got a lot of “announcements to announce” future products, demos that felt like ChatGPT wrappers pitched as groundbreaking, and some players outright canceling meetings clearly intended to be launches. There were certainly solid AI offerings available for immediate use, but many more remained coming attractions.
This isn’t necessarily a knock on these vendors. This technology — at least at this level — is barely over a year old. Compared with where everyone was in the fall of 2022, everything looks like magic. Yet one couldn’t help but feel as though most of the companies at the show planned to have products ready for market this week and just… didn’t quite make it. As one expert I spoke with put it, a lot of folks seem to have gotten 80 percent of the way there and just hit a wall getting that last 20 percent up to the standards they’d want before putting it out there.
While the mainstream media still picks up on lawyers misusing commercial AI, the legal tech industry is beyond hallucinations and focused on outcomes that produce meaningful work product 100 percent of the time. At the margins, that’s a tall order.
Some of my best meetings involved vendors willing to get into the weeds on the challenges they face getting products over the finish line. “Summarizing a document” sounds easy until you really try to untangle HOW you teach a program to understand what to pull out for a summary. On that particular score, I heard three different approaches to getting generative AI to compose consistently successful deposition summaries. All of them sounded like great ideas and I’m sure each involve some pernicious hangups getting furiously sorted out.
Meanwhile, the ChatGPT wrappers flummoxed me. It read as though they didn’t want to find themselves putting on a brave face for a product still a few months off and opted instead to rush out a bare bones offering. Unfortunately, these don’t produce output much more impressive than standard search. In fact, standard search might get attorneys the result faster than waiting for the system to spit out a response.
But it’s premature to write these folks off. If this was just box-checking to satisfy the artificial deadline of producing “working AI” by Legalweek and something more robust comes out by mid-year, all will be forgiven. On the other hand, if they really think this is going to cut it….
Companies who outright canceled? Well, I guess that’s stage fright.
After setting up with Cranston, the show closed with a keynote from mogul skier to underground poker mogul Molly Bloom. The acting was behind us, the next few months is all about calling bluffs.
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.