AI Legal Tools Could Be Too Pricey For Those Most In Need

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As a former BigLaw attorney with years of experience in pro bono work, Dorna Moini had a vision: build an automated tool that would allow domestic violence victims to help themselves as much as possible in legal proceedings without having to hire an attorney.

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Dorna Moini

Matching that vision with her entrepreneurial spirit, in 2018 Moini created an artificial intelligence-powered platform known as HelpSelf Legal where survivors could answer questions about their situations, be routed down the right path, and generate documents that they needed for their cases.

Along the way, Moini said, she realized there were many other attorneys who wanted to build similar tools in other areas of law. The proliferation of AI technology in law inspired her to expand her horizon further. And so in March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was set to change the legal industry forever, Moini created Gavel, a programmable legal automation platform that lawyers can tailor to the needs of their clients.

By feeding the platform some parameters, lawyers create workflows that help guide them and their clients through the lifecycle of a case. But unlike other generative AI-powered tools, such as chatbots, which have been prone to citing nonexistent case law when used for legal work, Gavel allows attorneys to create legal processes that are free from errors, Moini said.

"It's AI that you can fully control and you know that the result is going to be 100% what you want it to be every single time," Moini told Law360. "So, it gives you the peace of mind while also giving you the efficiency, the advancement and really a lot of the error-proofing that comes from using some of these AI-based tools."

AI-powered platforms like Gavel have the potential to help legal aid organizations, often under-resourced and understaffed, meet the huge demands for representation existing across the country, Moini said.

"We have very overburdened legal aid organizations who don't have enough attorneys and people to serve the communities who are coming in the door and who need legal services, but who can now scale up the impact of the services they have," she said. "We've seen the impact that technology can have and how one human who was previously able to serve one person can now serve 10, sometimes 100 people in that same amount of time because they are able to use tools like Gavel."

But while the legal aid community has generally expressed enthusiasm about the deployment of generative AI tools, legal experts and some bar associations have voiced concerns that AI technology might be too costly for many players, including cash-strapped nonprofits and pro se litigants.

Gavel currently offers subscription packages that go from $83 a month for basic services to $459 for its "enterprise" package. Casetext's CoCounsel, a product by Thomson Reuters, offers one-user subscriptions for $250 a month.

A demonstration of the AI-powered legal technology platform Gavel shows how the system can guide users through sometimes complex processes like completing applications to have criminal charges expunged. (Courtesy of Gavel)

Meanwhile, OpenAI's ChatGPT, a chatbot that is being increasingly used for legal research and in the drafting of legal documents, offers basic services for free, with paid subscriptions available for teams or for "enterprise" services. Unlike the free plan, which offers access to an older version of the platform, the most expensive ChatGPT plan includes unlimited high-speed use of its latest iteration, known as GPT-4, along with the text-to-image model DALL-E, browsing, advanced data analytics, better security, and priority customer support. Anthropic's Clause 3, a chatbot backed by Amazon, meanwhile, offers a "pro" plan for $20 a month.

During a panel discussion hosted by the Legal Services Corporation last month, Andrew M. Perlman, a dean and professor at Suffolk University Law School who has served as an advisory council member of the American Bar Association Task Force on the Law and Artificial Intelligence, acknowledged that even low-cost subscriptions could be a barrier.

"I know even $20 a month can be a major expense for a resource-constrained legal aid organization," Perlman said.

The New York State Bar Association said in a recent report that the AI boom could end up widening the gap between litigants who have money to spend on technology and those who do not. For example, landlords will likely be able to access AI tools to increase the number of enforcement actions against tenants. Tenants, on the other hand, may not have the same kind of access to AI in preparing their response, the report said.

NYSBA warned of other obstacles facing pro se litigants when it comes to the new technology, including a lack of access to computers and internet, and a low level of literacy in how to use AI, both of which the group said could worsen existing inequalities in the justice system.

"Compounding this is the fact that most legal services organizations have little to no resources to prepare for these changes in access to AI now," the report said.

Vivian D. Wesson, the chair of the NYSBA task force that produced the report, reiterated the point in an interview with Law360.

"Let's not even leap to the cost of the tool. Let's leap to the cost of just having broadband access. Most people struggle just to be able to get into the internet," Wesson said.

The pandemic, which forced many low-income litigants to rely on spotty internet service to attend virtual court hearings, has magnified the underlying problem of "digital deserts" that could pose a further challenge as the age of AI sets in.

And paying even $20 to subscribe to a generative AI tool, Wesson said, could be a problem for people living in or near poverty.

"The access and the cost are twofold, because you have to look at the infrastructure barrier, as well as cost-of-a-tool barrier, and weigh the two of those against some other more pressing needs like food and home insecurity," Wesson said.

NYSBA President Richard Lewis said the issue of connectivity, regardless of income, can also be a handicap for people who live in geographically isolated areas that lack broadband internet access.

"This is a problem throughout the country," he said.

Most legal experts acknowledge that some form of regulation is needed to rein in potential risks presented by what has already proven to be a lucrative generative AI industry.

Colleen V. Chien, the co-director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology at U.C. Berkeley School of Law, which recently tested generative AI platforms as part of a pilot program geared toward legal aid attorneys and workers, said the risk of exacerbating inequities has sparked concerns among people who have devoted their careers to trying to bridge the justice gap.

In particular, she said, there is fear and uncertainty among legal aid attorneys who might not have access to the kinds of advanced technologies that are now being piloted at large law firms.

"The promise of AI is that it can create a level playing field for everybody. But we can already see that, organically, legal aid attorneys aren't going to necessarily have access to the most cutting-edge technologies," Chien told Law360. "There's a risk that this community in particular will be underserved by AI."

Moini said legal aid groups that have purchased Gavel subscriptions are already playing an important role in connecting low-income litigants with AI technology. But she added that geographic distance can pose a challenge for members of the public living far away from clinics.

In San Bernardino County, California, the largest county in the contiguous United States by area, for instance, people have to drive two or three hours just to get to the physical locations of legal aid organizations. The accessibility of AI platforms to pro se litigants is therefore crucial to their ability to find ways of helping themselves, Moini said.

"This issue of access, and particularly geographic access is something that we have paid very close attention to," she said. "The clinic is an important method by which we can provide legal services, but having online tools that people can access on their own at any time of day, from any location, are also critical to bridging that justice gap."

--Editing by Marygrace Anderson.

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