Lawyers are often the butt of jokes and the target of unfounded comments going to their lack of integrity and untrustworthiness. However, these jokes and stereotypes ignore that reality of the profession which places extraordinary demands on lawyers who are expected to produce results in a timely, efficient, effective, and diligent manner that benefit their clients and society at large. Unfortunately, this reality can contribute to burnout, a silent epidemic that is affecting lawyers more than most.
In this article I will explore how AI technology, specifically Chat GPT, can be a game-changer for the lawyers of today and tomorrow, providing a solution to alleviate burnout within the profession.
Burnout: the silent epidemic plaguing lawyers
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines burnout as "a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one's job or feeling of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy."
Burnout can affect any profession, but lawyers are more susceptible than most for a few reasons: their challenging workload, pressure to bill hours and the intense pressure from clients and colleagues to produce results. Government lawyers have the added stress of the limited resources available within the public sector, as well as the inherent public and political nature of the work they do, which only exacerbates feelings of stress and anxiety which contributes to burnout.
In March 2021, the Law Society of New South Wales conducted a survey of more than 2,000 lawyers in Australia. In response to questions regarding their experience with burnout, 57% of lawyers had experienced burnout and more than 65% did not feel comfortable disclosing their mental health struggles with their employer. Admittedly, this survey was conducted in the midst of coronavirus pandemic, however, a similar survey conducted in 2019 found that 71% of respondents had experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression. In the same survey, it was also found that government lawyers had experienced higher levels of psychological distress compared to their colleagues in the private sector.
This issue is not siloed to Australia, with legal mental health charity, LawCare, in the United Kingdom releasing data from research conducted between 2020 and January 2021. The data suggests that lawyers are at a high risk of burnout, especially those aged between 26 and 35. Moreover, the data also indicated that females, people from ethnic minorities and those with a disability scored higher than average for burnout.
Given this silent epidemic, which is continuing unchecked, it would be extraordinarily ignorant and misguided to dismiss the use of technology as a tool to relieve the factors that contribute to burnout. So first, what is the technology about and why is their hesitancy against its adoption.
Chat GPT: in conversation
To learn a little more about ChatGPT, I asked it (yes, the AI) a few questions:
What is Chat GPT? "Chat GPT is an AI language model that can understand natural language and generate human-like responses. It has been trained on a lot of text data and can be used to automate certain legal tasks, freeing up lawyers' time to focus on more complex work."
You say that Chat GPT can automate legal tasks, can you provide more information on that? "Certainly. Chat GPT can help automate certain legal tasks by analysing and understanding natural language inputs and generating appropriate responses. For example, it can be used to answer simple legal queries, assist with legal research, and even draft routine legal documents. This can help to streamline legal processes and reduce the workload of lawyers, allowing them to focus on more complex and high-value work. Additionally, by automating routine tasks, Chat GPT can help to reduce errors and increase efficiency in legal practice."
What do you say about people who say we should no trust Chat GPT and similar technologies? "There are valid concerns regarding the use of Chat GPT and similar AI technologies, including data privacy, bias, and the potential for misuse. However, it is essential to address these concerns and ensure that AI is developed and used responsibly. By taking measures to protect data privacy, ensure transparency, and mitigate ethical considerations, the potential benefits of Chat GPT and AI can be maximised while minimising risks. Ultimately, it is up to individuals and organisations to carefully consider the use of AI and ensure that it is implemented in a responsible and ethical manner."
Will Chat GPT and similar technologies take the job of lawyers? "While Chat GPT and similar technologies can automate certain legal tasks, it is unlikely that they will completely replace lawyers. Legal practice involves a broad range of tasks that require human judgement, interpretation, and empathy, which are difficult with AI. However, Chat GPT and AI more broadly can help augment the work of lawyers, making them more efficient and effective. For example, Chat GPT can assist with legal research, document drafting, and answering routine legal queries. By automating these tasks, lawyers can focus on more complex and high-value work that requires human expertise and creativity."
In short, Chat GPT and similar technologies are not substitute for lawyers, but rather a tool that can enhance the work of legal professionals. As with any technology, the key is to use it in a way that maximises its benefits while minimising potential risks and ethical concerns.
To adopt or to reject, that is the question:
Debate surrounding the use of Chat GPT in the law exploded when it was revealed that Judge Juan Manuel Garcia used Chat GPT in a recent court decision in Colombia. Following this decision, Lawyers Weekly asked its readers how much they trust Chat GPT and it found that only 7% do. moreover, 60% of respondents don't trust AI technologies at all. Further to this, there are rightfully concerns regarding potential copyright infringement of material produced on Chat GPT. There are also relevant ethical concerns raised regarding the potential for an unintended bias in the data perpetuating discrimination. Further to this, Australian schools and universities responded reactively by banning Chat GPT to prevent cheating.
In addition to this hesitancy to adopt AI, students at most of Australia's public schools have been banned from accessing Chat GPT, universities have also rushed to update their academic integrity policies to prevent cheating through AI.
What I suggest is two-fold, to relieve the immediate pressure on the legal industry. Firstly, lawyers should be encouraged to adopt AI technologies, and secondly, to prevent another generation of overworked lawyers, we need to consider AI integration within our educational institutions.
Industry leaders must not be reactive, rather, they should encourage their workforce to learn how to work with AI to effectively leverage the benefit of the technology in creating more efficient and effective outcomes. Trust can be built by working with the technology. Through exposure, one can understand the limitations of the technology and understand how it can benefit one in the workplace.
Personally, the potential genuinely excited me. By automating some legal tasks, we can streamline the work efforts of lawyers to strategically significant tasks that require more focus due to their complexity. Image how advantageous this can be for government lawyers who we know are overworked and inherently have limited resources to work with. So why not be open to learning the new? Why don't we embrace the potential? I believe it would be particularly ignorant not to do so noting the current budgetary environment and demand for legal work within the public sector.
Admittedly, I am no technological expert. However, I don't need to be. The point here is that we need to embrace innovation that presents opportunities for better outcomes. Technology will prove to be our greatest tool to continue producing results whilst alleviating the circumstances that contribute to burnout within the legal industry.
The only joke left will be the lawyer who refuses to integrate AI technology into their practice.