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Best Practices in Pro Bono: The Role of Artificial Intelligence in Pro Bono and Access to Justice Recap

On May 23, we welcomed folks from across the legal profession and in the tech world to discuss the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in pro bono service and access to justice. 

Our panelists included:

  • Tiana Russell, Public Service Counsel, Crowell
  • Michael Lukens, Executive Director, CAIR Coalition
  • Adrián Palma, Pro Bono Program Manager, Microsoft Corporation
  • Jim Sandman, Vice-Chair of the ABA Task Force on Law and Artificial Intelligence, Law Professor, President Emeritus of the Legal Services Corporation, Past President of the D.C. Bar (and so, so much more!)

When thinking of AI, many minds go to the newest and hottest technologies like ChatGPT and Microsoft Copilot. These are called generative AI, which refers to technologies that can create original content such as text, images, video, and audio. But did you know that AI has been around for a while and lawyers, especially, have been relying on it heavily? When you’re doing a quick Google search or reading through the list of cases suggested in Westlaw, you’re using AI. That older and commonly used version of AI is called predictive AI. Predictive AI looks backwards at an existing data set and predicts outcomes based on that data. 

For many lawyers, new technologies have raised alarm bells, they worry about misuse or misinformation spreading. AI may be smart, but with so many unknowns, the risk seems pretty high. From an ethics standpoint, there are considerations about inputting client information or the seemingly wild idea that generative AI can create citations or produce work products for your client or the court. From a substance standpoint, stories of AI making up legal precedent, inserting fake citations, and generally not being able to navigate the nuances of the law as they apply to the complexities of our world are on the rise. 

With so many legitimate fears, it may seem easier to not explore AI. When we polled those in attendance, many of them admitted that they didn’t currently use AI. So, where is AI coming up and what is it going to look like? Firms and organizations are already drafting AI policies and providing training to help their employees navigate using AI for their work. In some areas of the law, even clients are reaching out to ask how AI is being used to reduce their billable hours. 

While knowing the current limits of the technology is important, there are also important applications that can benefit both lawyers and clients. While creating legal work product has more problematic implications right now, AI is good at communicating clearly. When thinking about non-legal duties that lawyers engage in such as creating presentations, organizing events, and even summarizing legal information, there are a lot of applications for AI. 

During our meeting, we walked through the way Microsoft Copilot can talk to all the other Microsoft suite applications such as Word, Powerpoint, and others. In a brief demonstration, we saw Copilot take a short paragraph prompt and turn it into a full Run of Show as well as a corresponding Powerpoint presentation. The AI provided timing for the event and drafted remarks for the various speaking points. What would have taken several hours took several minutes. Our panelists emphasized how this work product was a draft that cut down on time by creating a jumping off point for edits rather than requiring you to start from a blank page. 

Our panelists mused about other potential future uses of AI once we embrace its use and advance the technology further. Maximizing its ability to communicate clearly, we discussed AI as a potential bridge to clients that are not legally trained. For example, we have over 40 legal service organizations in DC with self help tools about basic legal problems. Generative AI can easily summarize and synthesize that information at an understanding level appropriate for the person trying to learn about their legal issue. 

We also considered how generative AI can replace predictive AI. For example, state law can be tricky to navigate, especially if a person doesn’t have a good understanding of how the law that applies to their case must be from the jurisdiction where their case is located. A Google search can seem like a simple solution until you’re in Illinois looking at Maine state law. One panelist mused about a search tool that is smart enough to ask a querent where they are located as part of the response to their legal question and provide a response for the correct  jurisdiction. Being able to engage with the search tool can provide users a response for the correct issue with a meaningful solution where scouring Google page after Google page may not. 

Once our panel emphasized the potential benefits of AI, the conversation turned to the current state of resources available for those that want to use AI to increase access to justice. Thinking of accessibility, our panel noted the current cost of AI tools and resources as well as the need to educate potential future users. When considering how to scale both teaching about the technology and integrating it into organizations that could most benefit, we came to a nuanced cliffhanger on the potential of pro bono services from firms supporting AI in legal service organizations and potential for advancing the technology. This is where we left off on the conversation until next time!

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