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Gen AI and legal - swim don’t sink

AI is one of the most transformative innovations the world has ever seen and its impact, particularly that of Generative AI, is demanding that professionals across industries adopt a new level of technological literacy.

The speed with which AI has become a non-negotiable has caught many by surprise, and for those professions which owe much to precedent and tradition, such as legal, the cosmic disruption of AI, while unsettling, can no longer be dismissed or ignored. 

With only light commentary and guidance from governments and regulators, and AI development rapidly accelerating, if you’re not prepared to swim, to do your best to navigate these uncharted waters, you may sink.

The importance of adopting a digital mindset

If we consider legal’s historical role in the creation of rules and regulations and their administration, a role which underpins legal philosophy, it’s understandable that many in the profession are hesitant to adopt AI, to adapt or do away with traditional ways of working that have (largely) served legal well for generations. 

According to Seshani Bala, General Counsel of KPMG New Zealand, legal has no option but to get onboard. “If you’re delivering legal services like you were ten years ago, that’s a problem,” she says. “If you don’t adopt a digital mindset, embrace change and build your tech literacy (which is now critical table stakes), that’s going to be an issue because lawyers who don’t use AI will be replaced by those who do. It’s really important to lean into this disruption and push yourself to learn about technology - grasp AI concepts, understand how they work, their limitations and capabilities and how they are deployed, as this will impact your career journey. 

“These days, a successful in-house lawyer must also be a tech lawyer.”

To enable businesses to adopt AI safely and ethically, legal needs to go beyond the law, lead conversations on AI ethics and provide guidance on establishing an AI governance framework. “If you want competitive edge, you need to be thinking about how you are using Generative AI and how to position your business as a responsible leader that drives positive social impact in this space,” says Bala. “In contrast to traditional law, which is backward looking, tech and AI surge forward and require today’s lawyers to anticipate the impact of dynamic new technology, advocate for adaptive regulations and foster a forward-thinking mindset.” 

While we can expect a tsunami of AI regulation in the next 12 months, Bala says that in the absence of a current AI regulatory framework, it’s vital that in-house counsel provide their business with a clear steer on ‘safe use’ parameters for Generative AI. “There’s a huge opportunity for lawyers to become architects of a more ethical AI-powered future - they can influence business ethics in this landscape by ensuring that key themes like bias and fairness, accountability, transparency, privacy and security and human oversight are front of mind.”

Governments discuss regulation of AI

Despite regulation being a grey area, moves to make it more black-and-white are underway. 

In the UK, a whitepaper entitled A pro-innovation approach to AI regulation was recently presented to the government. It states: “Our whitepaper identifies how we intend to support innovation while providing a framework to ensure risks are identified and addressed. However, a heavy-handed and rigid approach can stifle innovation and slow AI adoption. That is why we set out a proportionate and pro-innovation regulatory framework. Rather than target specific technologies, it focuses on the context in which AI is deployed.”

The paper also declares “Government intervention is needed to improve the regulatory landscape” and stresses that its intention is to deliver “a pro-innovation regulatory framework that is designed to be adaptable and future-proof, supported by tools for trustworthy AI including assurance techniques and technical standards”. 

Across the Atlantic, ways to regulate AI remain a discussion point; little that is meaningful in terms of policy has occurred.

A New York Times article published in July asserted: “The United States is only at the beginning of what is likely to be a long and difficult path toward the creation of AI rules, lawmakers and policy experts said. While there have been hearings, meetings with top tech executives at the White House and speeches to introduce AI bills, it is too soon to predict even the roughest sketches of regulations to protect consumers and contain the risks that the technology poses to jobs, the spread of disinformation and security.”

Swim don’t sink

Meantime, AI is here and cannot be ignored. Bala points out that regardless of whether we instinctively fear or embrace AI, today’s ways of working are very different to how they were even three or four years ago, and those changes will keep happening at pace. 

“Using this technology will massively change how quickly lawyers can deliver things, as well as improve access to justice. We have to know how to use it responsibly, it’s not optional anymore. The approach these days is tech-first.” 

In other words, the longer you leave it, the harder it will be. Sink or swim, those are the options.

“You’ve got to figure out how you’re going to use it safely and ethically and then work out what the risks are for that use and try to mitigate them,” Bala advises. “My main focus is trying to create guidelines around the grey areas, providing the business with clarity so we can keep pushing forward. We’re responsible for how we use the technology. That’s my bottom line. And there are generally four big issues: privacy, intellectual property, data and ethics.”

As world-renowned futurist, author, and business and technology advisor Bernard Marr wrote: “No matter where you stand on the issue, we can all agree that AI is here to stay so regardless of how challenging it is to figure out the regulatory rabbit hole, it is now time to start seriously considering what needs to be in place at a national and international level to regulate AI.”

Legal has an opportunity to play an important part in how the world adapts to the AI era. The profession’s reputation for seeking justice and truth, combined with its sense of social responsibility, mean it is unrivalled when it comes to leading discussions and influencing outcomes as to how AI is regulated. So, best dive in! 

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