Over the past year, there has been a lot of talk about Gen AI and how and whether it should be used. It’s been a wild ride, unlike anything I have seen in my 35+ years (who’s counting!) of practice. It’s like we have all — lawyers, law firms, and legal vendors — stumbled upon an exotic tequila — irresistible and exhilarating — that we can’t put down.
But how do we navigate through all the hype? What should be our true north in making decisions about how to use Gen AI, or any technology for that matter?
As we step into a new year it’s a good time for some reflection. A recent keynote address here at the massive CES electronics show in Las Vegas helped me focus on what should be important to the legal community when thinking about Gen AI.
We need to examine what we do and determine what we, as lawyers and legal professionals, are uniquely qualified to do. Based on our training and experience, what are we good at? What are we experts in? If we can identify those things, we can then ask: What work for which we offer no specific expertise can tech in general and Gen AI do for us?
A Fresh Perspective From CES
Now, about that Keynote. I have attended CES for close to a decade now. I go primarily for those outside-the-box ideas from those not in law that could revolutionize our legal landscape.
Keep in mind how CES keynotes go. There is a high-level official, often a CEO, who comes on and typically says here is what my company is doing for humanity (i.e., shareholders). The CEO then typically introduces other folks in the company to talk about new producers and apps. The CEO announces partnerships or “collaborations” with other well-known companies. They then bring out some vice presidents or directors from those companies to wave the flag. The keynotes are often predictable and, frankly, a little boring.
But every once in a while, you get a gem. An insight that is instructive on multiple levels that even us lawyers can take with us and apply. And this time, it was all about how we, as legal professionals, might better harness and use Gen AI.
So, given all this, when I was sitting in the Walmart CEO keynote recently, I was only half listening as he started talking about Walmart’s collaboration with Microsoft. I mean, every CEO keynote speaker talks about the wonderful partnership they have with Microsoft. (So do most legal tech vendors, by the way.)
But, damn. When he said: Here to talk about Walmart’s collaboration with Microsoft is the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, I about fell out of my chair. I guess when you are Walmart, you can get that kind of attention, even from Microsoft.
The Wisdom of Satya Nadella
Nadella shared some real insights into Gen AI and its uses. Nadella likened Gen AI tools (well, he actually said Microsoft Copilot, but I will throw in the others) to having a seasoned expert right by your side at all times to help you. To save you time and allow you to devote your time and attention to things you are uniquely qualified for.
Nadella gave examples. Gen AI allows doctors to spend more time with their patients instead of drowning in paperwork. Students can get personalized tutors to help them understand details so they can advance. And on and on.
My Take on Lawyering
This got me thinking: What are the things for which lawyers are the experts? What are we lawyers really good at? What does our training and experience uniquely qualify us to do? If we can pinpoint these things, we can then figure out what parts of our job Gen AI can take over so we can do what we do best.
In my 35 years in the trenches, I’ve realized I was uniquely uniquely qualified to do a few things that, for the most part, I was good at. Here’s my list:
- The ability to identify potential issues and exposure for my clients (aka, look for trouble).
- An ability to identify ways to navigate the problems, issues and troubles.
- Exercising sound judgment in advising clients given their unique problems and circumstances.
- Understanding and empathizing with my clients’ problems — both business and legal.
- A commitment to never say no without figuring out and offering workarounds.
- The ability to develop overall and long-term strategies for success given client needs and desires.
- And perhaps most importantly, recognizing that it’s not just about the law or the lawyer. In most cases, legal problems are just a component of business problems and issues.
Notice I didn’t say “knowing the law.” I handled all kinds of matters and issues over the years that involved different legal issues. Often, I didn’t know the law in detail. But I knew when to look it up. I knew the applicable fundamental legal principles and their purpose. I appreciated the broad societal reasons for those applicable legal concepts.
From there, I could always research the details and find the citations. (Yes, it pays to read the cases you cite.) The expert at my side for the details in the early days was the law library and later associates.
Embracing Gen AI in Legal
So in all the Gen AI smoke and handwringing, lets first identify what we excel at as lawyers. What only we as lawyers are qualified to do. Then, when it comes to technology and the flavor of the day, Gen AI, let’s look relentlessly at how we can eliminate the time we spend on anything else. Let technology free us up for the work only we can do.
That’s Satya Nadella’s advice. And Microsoft has done pretty well under his leadership.
Stephen Embry is a lawyer, speaker, blogger and writer. He publishes TechLaw Crossroads, a blog devoted to the examination of the tension between technology, the law, and the practice of law.