AI & Family Law: Why Robots Can’t Replace Divorce Attorneys

It’s incredible to think that less than two years ago, ChatGPT was a nearly unknown startup that was not part of any dinner conversations or news stories. Few had ever heard of “large language models,” and fewer still understood how they worked or what they could do.

The recent explosion of Artificial Intelligence tools now makes it somewhat difficult to imagine a world without them. In just seconds, AI “artists” are painting pictures that could hang in galleries. ChatGPT is writing poetry, love letters and, much to the chagrin of educators, term papers. It’s even being integrated into web searches to provide a more natural-language method of finding information on the internet.

To its supporters, AI seems to represent a computing utopia — for the first time, machines appear to be talking to us the way real people do. This has understandably led to a number of predictions about what an AI-saturated future might look like. Many of those predictions center around AI taking over jobs currently and historically done by humans.

We’re already seeing that happen. The Associated Press, one of the most recognized journalistic organizations in the world, is using AI to write some of its articles. Workers who never worried about being replaced are nervous: When will AI come for our jobs? That’s a question I’ve gotten as well, wondering if I’m concerned that my practice of family law might someday be taken over by a silicon interloper: Clients would be signing engagement agreements with machines who would be their advocates and entering appearances on their behalf.

I can emphatically say that out of all the things that keep me awake at night with worry, the threatened AI takeover does not cost me any sleep. Lest I be cast as a Luddite, I should make it clear that I am not averse to change. Change has been a part of my professional life and something I’ve embraced my entire career. Specifically, the practice of family law has undergone what I’d call a revolutionary change. When I began, most divorces were forced onto the same adversarial path, and for the most part, resolved inside a courtroom. Today, the majority of the matters I handle are resolved creatively, privately and intelligently through alternative dispute resolution.

That change has been better for everyone. Couples who mediate rather than litigate tend to divorce with a much healthier path forward. Change like that is both good and welcome. But what change would replacing family lawyers with AI bring?

Non-Humans Lack Humanity

To understand that, you have to understand what makes a good family attorney. It’s not encyclopedic knowledge of case law or an in-depth understanding of courtroom procedures. That’s the easy part. Instead, it’s an ability to provide care and possess emotional intelligence.

A family law attorney who lacks the emotional intelligence to read situations and people, who doesn’t understand the importance of factoring in the emotions of their clients and the opposing parties, and who isn’t interested in personalizing their counsel based on the client they’re representing, the lawyer they are opposing, a client’s spouse or a specific judge, is an ineffective attorney in the matrimonial world.

Every client I represent has their own set of values, priorities and things which are morally or ethically important to them. When I create a plan for my clients, I carefully consider all of those factors and more, which is why I have a difficult time believing that AI as we understand it today could flesh out those kinds of qualitative points at all, much less in a manner that benefits the client.

Instincts Are Vital

Ultimately, AI lacks instincts. I recently concluded a case that had been in the works for nearly four years. I saw a clear opening to finally reach a comprehensive settlement based on my observations of the parties involved, my client and I made the call, weighed pros and cons and how to approach closing, and the case settled. AI lacks the instincts to really know whether to hold out, settle or take the emotional temperature of a cast of characters in every case that makes finality possible. Making a bad call because the AI “lawyer” lacks the instincts to make a good one could be disastrous for the client.

AI tools are simply limited in this area. Despite their ability to mimic human communication, they aren’t actually capable of understanding that communication or engaging in a meaningful dialog where holistic and smart decisions are made. You wouldn’t seek out an AI therapist; how could you possibly trust an AI divorce lawyer?

If you were given a phrase book in a language you don’t speak, which told you what words to respond with when specific phrases were spoken to you, you could have an entire conversation in that language without ever knowing what was said. That, at its core, is what AI is doing. Without true human communication which includes empathy, venting, calming, collaboration, creativity and conversation, understanding is impossible. Without understanding, a proper interpretation of events in a case is equally impossible.

We’ve already started seeing this play out in the legal profession. Lawyers have used ChatGPT to write their legal briefs, only for their machine outsourcing to be discovered when the fake citations ChatGPT inserted were checked. ChatGPT had no idea its citations were wrong because it is not capable of having an idea. Some very expensive lawyers found themselves in a lot of trouble, rightfully so, for relying on AI in that capacity.

Family Law Is Relationship-Driven

At its core, the attorney-client relationship is just that — a relationship. I’m not just a hired and expensive advocate for my clients. I get to know them. I care about them. I partner with them. I want them to have an outcome to their divorce that they feel good about, not just because it’s my job, but because I know them and care about them.

The value I provide to my clients, and which they, in turn, provide back to me, is fostered by those authentic, non-computer generated relationships. That won’t change no matter how sophisticated artificial intelligence becomes, and if the next generation of lawyers doesn’t see the human side of practicing, they will ruin the practice of law and the value it brings to people that need us. Clients need somebody to represent them as the best version of themselves. Humans can do that. Computers cannot.

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