Will artificial intelligence replace your lawyer–and will its name be Harvey?

March 1, 2023, 11:51 AM UTC
The FTC has warned the legal sector not to exaggerate the benefits of A.I.
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Artificial intelligence + law is a blindingly hot equation. We are proving by the week that we simply can’t look away.

Enter Harvey, today’s golden child that lives at the intersection of technology and law.

Harvey is an A.I. platform that can help lawyers perform legal tasks in areas such as due diligence, litigation, and compliance. Described as “the innovative artificial intelligence platform built on a version of Open AI’s latest models enhanced for legal work,” legaltech startup Harvey, the self-styled “generative A.I. for elite law firms,” is about to play in the big leagues.

Harvey is being rolled out for use by 3,500 lawyers in 43 offices of Allen & Overy, the seventh largest law firm in the world and part of London’s “Magic Circle.”

I’ve watched legaltech evolve from the inside for decades. Having built one of the world’s first legaltech startup accelerators that brought together tech startups, investment, and law firms, I not only lived through the first major wave of legaltech startup hype and (over)funding, I helped fuel it. 

Reading the Allen & Overy press release on Harvey, it’s easy to believe that law, technology, and artificial intelligence are now inseparable.

But as the U.S. Federal Trade Commission reminded us on Monday, the claims about the abilities and benefits of artificial intelligence are out of control. In warning businesses to “keep your A.I. claims in check,” the FTC is sending a critically important message to the legal industry: While A.I. might sound intriguing to some, it won’t work in practice for most. 

Part of why A.I. technologies won’t become ubiquitous is a little industry secret: One of the most difficult aspects of legal technology is the absurd sales cycles. 

Harvey is counting on a collective industry fear of missing out–FOMO. The logic is that with Allen & Overy rolling out such a large technology deployment, FOMO will drive most of the other massive Magic Circle and Am Law 100 firms to follow.

These law firms are deeply competitive and want to own their breaking innovation news. Simply following Allen & Overy doesn’t get these firms the kind of PR they can hold out to clients who pay their remarkably high bills. It doesn’t scream, “we are different and better,” it mumbles, “we are okay with being joiners.” 

If you don’t think that innovation PR is important, just take a look at the Allen & Overy home page–a law firm with annual revenues of over $200 billion is devoting the landing page of their site to communicating a deal with a tech startup.

But A.I. is different, right? And it’s going to replace lawyers. 

No and no. 

An A.I. legal technology product will not change the legal industry’s business model, at least not at the top of the pyramid. Large law firms are built on an ownership structure where partners get to share profits each year. Not only is it extremely hard to convince partners to put some of this money back into the firm in the form of research, development, and technology implementation, it’s often practically impossible, as many of these firms’ owners are close to the end of their career and don’t want to invest in anything. They want their annual share, and that’s it. 

And A.I. won’t replace lawyers. 

The best case scenario is that A.I. will help lawyers serve more people and be a catalyst to help more people access justice.

In 2017, an American Bar Association study highlighted that “86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help.” The study highlights Miami-Dade, where 80% of litigants in domestic violence cases were self-represented.

So any legal technology that helps with access to justice and actually helps a lot of people should be welcome. Maybe a technology such as Harvey can do that kind of social good if it’s not aimed at elite law firms but instead at those lawyers working with people who need the kind of help that technology-empowered lawyers can provide. 

The idea that A.I. is going to take over the bulk of substantive work that lawyers do isn’t at all realistic. What’s going to happen is that Harvey is going to be used by massive, wealthy law firms to generate more profit. Harvey and whatever follows might be able to replace some of the work some entry-level lawyers do, but what corporate clients pay for is the experience, guidance, and judgment of the best lawyers. Big clients will still pay astronomical sums to have what they see as the best lawyers be responsible for the final work product.

While you and I might want do-it-yourself law, the clients of the firms that are Harvey’s target market do not.

If the technology-enabled “Uber for law” was coming to help regular people, it would be here by now. There will be more technologies that help a segment of people–but that sea-parting legaltech you’re waiting for that will replace all lawyers isn’t going to be built. 

Here’s a harsh reality: Twenty years from now, almost all lawyers will practice law the way they did 20 years ago.

Nonetheless, BigTech and the legal industry share a love for hype and hyperbole. Harvey is clearly a promising new technology that has applications in the legal world, like many technologies over the past decades. It is still very early days to determine what this technology will accomplish within one large law firm, never mind an entire industry.

Aron Solomon, JD, is the chief legal analyst for Esquire Digital. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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