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December 05, 2023

ABA Practitioner Survey Suggests Next Steps on AI

By AI and Economic Justice Project of the Civil Rights and Social Justice Section

Many credit recent developments in generative artificial intelligence (AI) tools like ChatGPT with the explosion of interest in artificial intelligence, however from a civil rights and economic justice perspective there has been considerable interest in how automated systems have been impacting people’s lives for years, be it in terms of tenant screening, criminal justice, surveillance, or other areas. In 2023, the Civil Rights and Social Justice (CRSJ) Section of the American Bar Association set out to better understand the impact of AI on low-income and other marginalized individuals and communities. After compiling a review of the literature, we developed and launched a survey, distributed to attorneys in various practice settings, which received nearly 200 responses. Here are a few high-level takeaways from the results that may inform how the ABA might better support its members and the clients they serve.

In short: many attorneys are familiar with the impact of automated systems on their clients but are not familiar with the details of how those systems work and are uncomfortable explaining them. In the employment context especially, many are not familiar with federal or state laws governing the use of automated systems and the majority of respondents were not comfortable advising clients on legal impacts. They note that these systems are not accessible to the public and are biased or at least use biased datasets. Survey respondents additionally noted that there is a lack of access to the technology required to benefit from automated systems (e.g. reliable broadband access), and that automated denials are often without any transparency as to why an applicant was rejected and without any opportunity to provide context for the derogatory data point that caused that result.

Who took the survey?

More than 66% of respondents worked in a small or larger city, 11% worked in multiple geographic settings, and 7% worked in remote rural areas. In terms of clients served (respondents could select multiple options), 30% served low-income individuals, 17% served lower-middle-income individuals, 10% served enterprises, and 96%+ served individuals from marginalized backgrounds (racial or ethnic minority, LGBTQ+, disability, immigrant or refugee, or other). More than 25% of respondents worked in consumer law, housing, or public benefits, but some worked in criminal justice, immigration, procurement, education, or employment as well.

What the survey-takers said

Approximately one third of survey respondents indicated they were familiar with each of the following: automated surveillance, fraud detection, generative AI, and risk scoring, but more than 70% said they were at least slightly uncomfortable with explaining how any of the above systems worked. Nearly half indicated that they didn’t know when automated systems were even being used, but nearly 60% agreed that they knew how the systems impacted their clients. More than half indicated that they had not taken trainings or CLEs on automated systems and did not know where to find such trainings. More than half questioned whether automated systems were accurate and a similar percentage felt the systems were biased. In terms of their own work, more than 60% did not change the way they worked because of automated tools available to lawyers. 

What the results mean

Although our 180+ survey respondents may not be a completely representative sample of the ABA nor of the profession more broadly, a few key things stand out to us: the ABA should offer trainings and CLEs on automated systems; should advocate for greater transparency and accuracy and less bias in automated systems; and should consider what it can do to ensure that marginalized communities such as those without reliable broadband access are not victimized by these systems without ever having a voice in their development or use, nor overlooked as more affluent communities celebrate the benefits of advances in technology despite those benefits not being universally enjoyed by everyone subject to the laws. CRSJ will be working to advance these goals within the ABA,  with support from the ABA President’s newly-minted Taskforce on AI (which includes focuses on risk mitigation and access to justice) and other groups.

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