An entire day at a conference on artificial intelligence and the law last week in Chicago produced this insight about how lawyers are dealing with the fast-changing world of artificial intelligence:

Many lawyers are like someone who knows he needs to buy a car but knows nothing about cars. He knows he needs to get from A to B each day and wants to get there faster. So, he is deposited at the largest auto show in the world and told, “Decide which car you should buy.”

Whether it’s at smaller conferences or at the gigantic, auto-show-like legal tech jamborees in Las Vegas or New York, the discussion of AI seems to be dominated by the companies that produce the stuff. Much less on show are people who use legal AI in their everyday lives.

At my conference, the keynote address (and two more panels) were dominated by IBM. Other familiar names in AI in the world of smart contracting and legal research were there, along with the one of the major “old tech” legal research giants. All of the products and services sounded great, which means the salespeople were doing their jobs.

But the number of people who presented about actually using AI after buying it? Just a few (including me). “We wanted to get more users,” said one of the conference organizers, who explained that lawyers are reluctant to describe the ways they use AI, lest they give up valuable pointers to their competitors.

Most of the questions and discussion from lawyers centered around two main themes:

  1. How can we decide which product to buy when there are so many, and they change so quickly?
  2. How can we organize our firm’s business model in such a way that it will be profitable to use expensive new software (“software” being what AI gets called after you start using it)?

Law firm business models are not my specialty, but I have written before and spoke last week about evaluating new programs.

Only you (and not the vendor) can decide how useful a program is, by testing it. Don’t let the vendors feed you canned examples of how great their program is. Don’t put in a search term or two while standing at a trade show kiosk. Instead, plug in a current problem or three while sitting in your office and see how well the program does compared to the searches you ran last week.

You mean you didn’t run the searches, but you’re deciding whether to buy this expensive package? You should at least ask the people who will do the work what they think of the offering.

I always like to put in my own company or my own name and see how accurate a fact-finding program is. Some of them (which are still useful some of the time) think I live in the house I sold eight years ago. If you’re going to buy, you should know what a program can do and what it can’t.

As with other salespeople in other industries, AI sales staff won’t tell you what their programs are bad at doing. And most importantly, they won’t tell you how well or how badly (usually badly) their program integrates with other AI software you may be using.

No matter how good any software is, you will need good, inquisitive and flexible people running it and helping to coordinate outputs of different products you are using.

While sales staff may have subject-matter expertise in law (it helps if they are lawyers themselves) they cannot possibly specialize in all facets of the law. Their job is to sell, and they should not be criticized for it.

They have their job to do, and as a responsible buyer, you have yours.

For more on what an AI testing program could look like and what kinds of traits the best users of AI should have, see my forthcoming law review article here: