What ChatGPT can, cannot do

By Warren Urquhart

Law360 Canada (January 16, 2023, 12:24 PM EST) --
Warren Urquhart
With the new year comes new think pieces, and ChatGPT has captured 2023’s imagination. Launched in November 2022, ChatGPT, or Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer seems to be the future of artificial intelligence (AI). At this point, where everyone toddler age and above lives their lives in a palace of screens, most understand the difference of what futurists want AI to be (an Isaac Asimov world where robots can think and perform as humans do) versus what we perceive as AI in our everyday lives (pre-filled suggestions for texts or emails, Siri, Google Home, etc.). ChatGPT appears to push the paradigm a bit closer to the futurist endgame.

For many, ChatGPT is the first time an accessible tool can produce readable and creative material at a passable level. Write in a prompt like “tell me a scary story” and you won’t get Stephen King, but you do get something readable. Ask for a joke, and you can get one in the style of a specific comedian, or a knock-knock joke that’s better then what your uncle tells at Thanksgiving dinner. It’s not Larry David — but it’s not horrible. The buzz ChatGPT has generated in just a couple of months has reportedly attracted Microsoft to invest another $10 billion in its parent company, OpenAI. Getting one million users in under a month seems to back up the Brinks truck.

While the legal community does not have a great track record with quickly adopting technology, some have already begun to think how ChatGPT can innovate. The dean of Suffolk University Law School wrote a 14-page article consisting of prompts he wrote into ChatGPT. The aim of the article was to demonstrate the application’s potential in the legal sector. The dean just wrote the prompts, headers and article abstract, with ChatGPT writing the bulk of the article through prompt responses. Its answers discussed the history of chatbots, deposition questions for a plaintiff in a motor vehicle accident in Massachusetts, a draft of a legal complaint and more.

It seems the sky is the limit, but potential innovations can be a precursor to never-realized hype. What can ChatGPT do, and what can’t it do? Let’s start with some classic legal skepticism.

What ChatGPT can’t do

It all depends on quality. From a legal perspective, ChatGPT can do everything, as long as you don’t care about a malpractice lawsuit. The main issue with ChatGPT is substance. In dean Andrew Perlman’s ChatGPT article, he acknowledges in the article abstract that “the response generated ny ChatGPT were imperfect and at times problematic.”  

Perlman’s thoughts are backed up by Sam Altman, the co-founder of Open AI: “ChatGPT is incredibly limited, but good enough at some things to create a misleading impression of greatness. It’s a mistake to be relying on it for anything important right now.” ChatGPT in fact has a list of its limitations on its website, acknowledging that it can write “plausible-sounding but incorrect or nonsensical answers”. Moreover, its knowledge reservoir is limited to data up to 2021, so don’t expect any answers from 2022 or 2023 before an update. Even if your question involves an answer with information from 2021 or before, you will still likely have to do your own research to confirm and do your due diligence.

In other words, putting in a prompt for a research memo or drafting a factum, at least without heavy editing, review and substantive additions or subtractions is not a good idea. Trying to figure out how a major Supreme Court decision from last week will impact your new client’s prospects through ChatGPT will likely have to wait a few years, if not more.

Finally, there is also the issue of safeguarding client information. ChatGPT is a third-party application — meaning inputting any confidential client information can be a significant risk. The Law Society of Ontario’s technology practice management guidelines advise lawyers being aware of the security risks in using information technologies and adopting adequate measures to protect against security threats. Putting any type of confidential information in ChatGPT may be playing with fire.    

What ChatGPT can do

Of course, the future may very well address all of the above concerns. However, for it to live up to the ambitions of its most ambitious advocates, like drafting detailed research memos with little review, the ChatGPT will likely need the ability to access new information (like those of us searching Google news) and process it instantaneously, or at least at a rate where its data pool is less than a year behind. Even then, it would likely need a degree of industry vetting and regulatory approval when it comes to data protection. ChatGPT is not to take the jobs of lawyers (yet).

However, ChatGPT may reduce the workload of administrative tasks for lawyers and support workers. One Vancouver lawyer demonstrated a simple use case of ChatGPT, creating a chronological table of events, which would probably save the average email/summary drafter valuable minutes. Others found that by inputting transcript files from meetings, ChatGPT can create a short, accurate succinct summary. Of course, the content generated from the application still needs human review — but the application will still save time. ChatGPT cannot replace support staff and administrative workers — but it can make their lives easier.

ChatGPT may also have positive applications on the business side of law, specifically marketing. I talked to one lawyer from a notable firm who is known for his marketing expertise; “I think legal tech startups and boutiques might use ChatGPT as a foundation for legal content. So they have ChatGPT write an article and then someone would go through it and ensure statements are right and maybe add additional comments.”

As someone with experience as a content writer — I too agree with that use case. For quality content, or recent legal developments a human touch will be necessary. As ChatGPT and other AI programs proliferate, people will get accustomed to what is AI-generated or not — and the human touch can help you differentiate. An SEO pro would still be necessary to appear on the coveted first page on Google. Some firms may try to cut content roles — but as differentiation is crucial for marketing, you would create your own disadvantage.

In short — for substantive legal tasks, ChatGPT has a ways to go. But for the administrative side and marketing department, there is value to be had today. Either way, the sky may be the limit for ChatGPT, but for now let’s keep our expectations tethered to the ground, and we’ll check back in a few years.

Warren Urquhart is articling with the Ontario Ministry of Attorney General in his second year at Osgoode Hall Law School. He’s a freelance writer and ex-cloud consultant. You can reach him via LinkedIn and Medium.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, 
The Lawyer’s Daily, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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