If the length of this post has shown anything, it’s that AI in legal research and law practice is an enormous and wide-reaching topic that is rapidly changing. Moreover, while large firms have the resources to understand and leverage AI tools, solo and small firms are at a disadvantage because that they lack the time to continuously investigate and evaluate new tools and lack the resources to retain the kind of expertise to help vet tools for use in their practices as well as to evaluate algorithmic systems that impact clients.
To be fair, there are some resources available. Most vendors attend solo and small law firm conferences and are eager to demo their products for solo and small firm lawyers. But vendors are hardly an objective source of information and often oversell the relevance of their product. As a quick example, recall the buzz that surrounded voice-activated billing software Tali which made it seem as if the technology had been widely embraced by users and was the next big thing. Yet Tali shut down this year, and in a recent post mortem by one of the company’s founders, turns out that even at its peak, Tali was adopted by only a few hundred users — most of whom never renewed their subscriptions when the term ran out. The point here is that vendors and investors will also plug their tech as a highly desirable or disruptive tool that can transform a lawyers’ practice – even when the use case or facts show otherwise.
Bar associations also have law practice management advisors who stay abreast of new technology. But most LPM advisors are time and resource strapped and may not have the ability to test and obtain feedback on new products as they emerge. In addition, some bar associations have exclusive agreements with certain vendors and thus, may be more inclined to promote those products rather than informing members on all options. Meanwhile, independent tech consultants are often tied to specific companies and products and in any event, are often expensive to retain.
Which brings us to the role of law librarians. Now to take a step back, I always viewed law librarians as a valuable resource for legal research, Back in the day when I started my law firm and used my local law library for research because I couldn’t afford WEXIS, I routinely sought the assistance of law librarians to access legislative history and more obscure journals. But as most legal resources became available online and declined in price, I no longer had the need to visit the law library, so law librarians became less relevant and useful to my legal research.
Now fast forward to today. As discussed, some AI-powered legal research tools like contextual brief searches are available and affordable for solo and small firm lawyers – yet solo and small firm lawyers also lack any means to test the accuracy of these tools. Meanwhile, other products – like analytics or contract analysis can be cost prohibitive for individual solo and small law firms to access. That’s where law librarians come into play. As academics, law librarians are healthy skeptics willing to question how AI products work and to constantly evaluate their accuracy. As professors, law librarians have the benefit of hundreds of test subjects – students – whom they can observe implementing these tools and gain an understanding of what aspects are intuitive and what kinds of tools require more legal training to implement effectively. Finally, law librarians are objective and don’t favor any particular brand except the ones that work best. And because law librarians have some influence over purchasing decisions, they may be able to extract inside information from vendor companies on how their technology works.
Many law librarians also practiced as lawyers. Based on this experience, they’re also adept at evaluating AI-practice tools like form automation or intake systems.
The law librarians who attended my roundtable presentation were incredibly impressive. They were on top of all of the technology and were using many of these tools – analytics packages and contextual briefs – in their legal research courses. And they constantly tested these tools for accuracy and stayed abreast of studies evaluating these products.
As we move forward to an AI-powered world, we need to figure out how to engage law librarians to help solo and small firm lawyers make the transition. Obviously, there are limits to what law librarians can do: after all, there are only so man-hours in a day and law librarians’ first priority will always be to serve existing students. At the same time, law schools also have an obligation to their alumni who practice as solo and small firm lawyers as well as to broader issues of access to justice. And law schools can accomplish those goals by figuring out how to make law librarians available to assist solo and small firm lawyers – whether through paying them more, allowing alumni to audit legal research classes taught by law librarians or developing CLE programs for alumni and hiring law librarians to teach those courses.
AI is here to stay in the legal profession and the opportunities for AI to improve the quality and reduce the cost of legal services that solo and small firm lawyers provide to clients is enormous. But in order to get to that point, solo and small firm lawyers need support – and it just might be that law librarians can serve as that missing link.