AI and the law in SA: How legal students & practitioners can embrace new tech

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Artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots are starting to make real inroads into the daily lives of South African law practitioners and students, mirroring the way their global peers are embracing the opportunities provided by this advancement. However, legal professionals must take care to ensure they use AI as a complementary and augmentation tool, not a replacement for human insight and due diligence, an education expert says.

“The role of the legal practitioner as we know it is evolving. Students are encouraged to engage with AI and leverage the potential it holds with the necessary judgment and circumspection required, such that it becomes a powerful tool in their modern legal practitioner’s armory,” says Natalie Martin, Head of Programme: Law at The Independent Institute of Education, SA’s leading private higher education provider.

Already, lawyers abroad have been left with egg on their face due to their injudicious use of AI, with the most notable case to date being that of a US lawyer submitting filings to the court that cited several fictitious court cases that were generated by ChatGPT. The court found out that the cases were bogus and did not exist, and ordered the lawyer to explain why he should not be disciplined for using ChatGPT without verifying its authenticity.

“The concept of the legal bot is to assist, not replace the legal practitioner, to allow for a more stream-lined approach to the courtroom. The idea is also to create a more affordable option for clients and perhaps even one without any ethical issues or conundrums normally faced by legal practitioners. In theory, this is a brilliant idea. However, the practical side of it requires some development and consideration,” Martin says.

She says it is important to consider the function of a legal representative in a matter in order to assess if the legal bot is capable of actually replacing the legal practitioner.

“The legal practitioner is one who has accumulated several years of knowledge in order to be able to apply their critical thinking to the law as it relates the client’s particular issue. A legal practitioner is often required to use the skills of reasoning, critical thinking and creativity to assess the merits of the client’s case and present feasible valid solutions – which is not yet a function that can be replicated successfully by AI.”

While in theory, representation by a legal bot at court is something that could materialise in future, this is likely to apply only to unopposed matters, which do not require on the spot thinking-on-your-feet responses.

“So for the foreseeable future, AI will become a helpful tool to assist legal practitioners, and is indeed already being used for tasks relating to due diligence, research and document automation. Additionally, managing risk and trial management is starting to fall under the bot’s duties globally, if not yet locally.”

What this means is that automation is starting to take over the legal grunt work, which frees up practitioners and firms to invest more human intelligence into client support and in-court appearances.

As the legal fraternity increasingly starts to embrace AI, current and future legal students, as well as practitioners who have held off on understanding the environment would do well to ensure they get a handle on the technology to ensure they remain professionally sharp and able to embrace and harness inevitable changes that’ll arise in future, says Martin.

She says current and future legal professionals must:
• Be aware of the current and emerging trends of AI in the legal profession, and how they can impact your career and practice. You can read articles, reports, blogs, podcasts, or books on AI and law, and follow the developments of AI-related cases, regulations, and innovations in South Africa and globally.
• Be open to learning new skills and competencies that are relevant and valuable for using AI in the legal profession, such as data literacy, digital literacy, critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, communication, collaboration, and ethics. You can enrol in online courses, workshops, webinars, or bootcamps on AI and law, and seek mentorship, guidance, or feedback from experts, peers, or practitioners.
• Be proactive in exploring and experimenting with AI tools and applications that can enhance your legal education and practice, such as legal research, document automation, contract analysis, due diligence, or dispute resolution. You can try out different AI platforms, software, or chatbots, and evaluate their features, benefits, limitations, and risks.
• Be responsible and ethical in using AI in the legal profession, and adhere to the relevant laws, codes, standards, and principles that govern the use of AI in South Africa and globally. Embrace the fact that you are part of developing this underdeveloped area of law. You can also participate in the public discourse and advocacy on AI and law, and contribute to the development and improvement of AI policies, regulations, and governance.
“Being on top of AI developments and being able to ethically integrate AI into your daily practice will put you ahead of many of your peers and competitors,” Martin says.

“While the legal bot may grow in its potential to make an impact in the legal field, it is unlikely that it will wholly replace the legal practitioner as it lacks the personality, ethical nature, critical thinking, creativity and reasoning required to approach a legal issue. Ensuring therefore that you match your legal skills to your AI nous, is a recipe for success in future.”