Big Ideas ALA President’s Letter

AI, the Frog in the Kettle, Captain Picard and the Business of Law

When I was a child in the late 1970s, I played chess against the computer and honed my skills. I got better through practice. Instead of having to rely on finding superior players to teach me or practice against, I could practice against a computer that knew all the gambits and chess moves that it had stored as algorithms to emulate the best chess players in the world. (And I could do it at 1 a.m. if I wanted to.) 

Geoffrey M. Williams, CLM, MBA, MDiv

In other words, we’ve all been using AI in ways we might not have considered. In fact, people who play video games have interacted with AI regularly. “Star Trek” fans have enjoyed emulated AI for decades, too. The Starship Enterprise could converse about combat strategy, provide information on an alien life form, locate a crew member, and perhaps the most scandalous thing to us all — occasionally give legal advice to the captain. When you search on Google, you are using AI and are guided though algorithms based on what it thinks is most relevant, in the way the algorithm is configured to define it.

But AI is not just for games, predictive searching or learning. It helps us in everyday life in ways many people do not think about. Nearly everyone who uses or accesses anything that incorporates technology uses some sort of AI daily. When our software makes suggestions as we type, we are experiencing predictive AI. Every smartphone made today uses AI for facial recognition. Once upon a time, all these applications were new or novel breakthroughs. Sometimes, people feared them. Then, they became ubiquitous seemingly overnight. Now, we cannot imagine a world without the assistance of AI.

Last November, ChatGPT — a type of generative AI — burst on the scene as it went viral. As a result, many people think of AI in this limited way. As expected, in the last year, the overwhelming interest in AI has produced a gluttony of information and even conspiracy theories posturing AI as the canary warning us of our doom. Much of this information is capitalism at work with a good amount of misguided advice, and imaginations running with Hollywood-led themes of AI taking over the world and even destroying the human race. There is a lot of resistance based in misunderstanding and fear from some really smart people. Recently, an Ivy league law school alumnus from a large law firm ranted that using AI in a law practice is malpractice.


Certainly, caution is warranted. There are legitimate issues to tackle, whether it’s loss of jobs to bots; false, fake or revision history; and real-time misinformation. In the legal industry, we see evidence of the fear of incorrect work product, invalid legal advice, inadequate case history and citations, lower standards of legal services, poor document production and even lost billable hours.

“Time will tell how this will be exploited. But our job is to determine how our firms will function in the emerging world and how we might leverage these technologies to better serve our clients and elevate the practice and business of law.”

One can only surmise at this point how much of a person’s behavioral data, online activities data, psychological profiling data and even genetic data are freely handed over by consumers to Amazon and Google. The computer knows enough about you that it can be programmed to respond to you to generate or inspire reactions and provide impulses that generate certain brain chemicals. Dopamine is hard to resist. In other words, it can have you fall in love with it or whatever it wants you to fall in love with like a product to buy. And if you aren’t the kind who falls in love easily, it might be able to make you feel like you share a friendship. Sounds like Hollywood, but here we are. 

Time will tell how this will be exploited. But our job is to determine how our firms will function in the emerging world and how we might leverage these technologies to better serve our clients and elevate the practice and business of law.

Like any technology introduced to the business world, it is prudent for leaders and users of technology to understand the advantages, weaknesses and proper application — especially if your firm is an early adopter for competitive advantage. As business leaders and professionals, we are passionately driven to achieve a level of understanding so we can make the best decisions. Often, our firms find comfort in what other firms are doing, and perhaps more frequently, what other firms are not doing. This might be acceptable if we are simply trying to learn of innovative solutions or great ideas. But if the firm down the street is not being innovative, then we feel better about not being innovative ourselves. Maybe the reverse is also true: They are not innovative because we are not being innovative. If it means that most of us are only going to do what other firms do, then we are working toward the goal of not having a competitive advantage and being average. It absolves us of the guilt of not devoting time and resources to raise the level of performance and advance our firm’s work product, processes and culture.

Differently, I envision a world in which the best law firms are those that provide top-level client service and legal advice and lead the practice of law by providing relevant legal services, doing challenging and/or complicated and rewarding work, and bringing justice to the future world.

AI will become ubiquitous — ubiquity happens slowly and then suddenly like a frog boiled gradually in a kettle. The frog, the story goes, adapts its comfort to its deteriorating environment gradually while fostering denial to the point it does not realize how bad things are and never knew it was being boiled. Those who do not change go belly up but never thought it would happen to them. Firms that live with deteriorating business conditions and that do not find ways to adapt to the changing world will find their environment inhospitable to their existence without noticing while it happens. 

We should be leading rather than fearing. Fear comes with the unknown. Peace and confidence come with understanding and learning. In which disposition do you want your firm to dwell? Consider what actions you need to take to lead your firm there and start today. The world is changing, and it is not waiting for us. So, do not wait any longer.

Disclaimer: I took my own advice. Generative AI was not used to author this article. But I have to give some credit to the Ai known as predictive text.