Using AI enhances students learning experience, future legal work
Using AI enhances students learning experience, future legal work
When students register for the paralegal studies program at Reynolds Community College in Richmond, Va. they will meet a multicultural cast of characters for a four-minute online orientation.
In the real world, an orientation video like this would have taken weeks to create. But Melissa Brooks, an associate professor and the paralegal program director, has used artificial intelligence to create a dream team of robots that are as lifelike as humans.
AI is on the rise in many aspects of the way we live, work and play. Brooks is using the platform to enhance the way her students learn.
“AI in its best form can help humans do their jobs better and serve as a tool to advance the idea of working smarter, not harder,” she said. “It’s no secret that higher education is under-resourced and faced with challenges, and I thought artificial intelligence could help me in the classroom.”
At the college, Brooks is a one-woman band. As an instructor and head of the paralegal program, she is the only full-time faculty member and wears many hats. She counts on using AI as a teaching assistant.
She also views AI as a way to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in her classes and help students relate to their studies in a way she cannot master alone.
“I identify as a white middle-class woman, and because I play so many roles in the program, I didn’t want students to hear only my voice and view only my persona all the time,” she said. “The idea that I could use artificial intelligence to help me diversify instruction was important to me as a teacher who is committed to diversity and inclusion in my personal pedagogy.”
Last summer, Brooks received a $1,500 innovation grant from the Reynolds Educational Foundation to enhance online learning in the college’s two-year paralegal degree program.
The program’s introductory video features a variety of avatars who take turns delivering friendly greetings to Brooks’ students. They are young, old, male, female, white, brown, and black. But Brooks says she’s not limiting her quest for diversity to race and ethnicity. Her goal is to create characters her students can identify with.
“I’m talking about diversity of age, experiences and upbringing, and that takes a lot of different shapes at a community college,” she said. “I have students who are 18 and right out of high school, and I have 67-year-old men and women who want to have a second act before they’re done.”
Law school and technology
At the North Carolina Central University School of Law in Durham, Diane Littlejohn also is exploring the bridge between technology and the law.
Littlejohn, a professor at the law school, also is the executive director of the NCCU Technology Law and Policy Center and the managing owner and principal at Littlejohn Law Offices in Raleigh and Durham, where she practices intellectual property law.
In her law practice technology course, Littlejohn focuses on teaching students how to use technology for online research and e-discovery to enhance their careers, no matter where they choose to practice.
ChatGPT, a popular language model-based chatbot and Microsoft product, is part of her teaching arsenal. The coursework is geared toward creating effective prompts for legal research and letter writing that yield the best results.
“My students are learning the language they use when crafting prompts yields different answers,” Littlejohn said. “So, I want them to see that while AI is a good tool, they must remember it may not generate their desired results.”
She also encourages students to be mindful of an attorney’s ethical obligations to their clients when considering how to use AI.
“You don’t want to put your client’s private information out there,” she said. “And while my students are impressed by AI, they are cautious about it, too,” she said.
To date, the state and national bar organizations are examining how this technology is used and its implications. At law schools, administration and faculty also are questioning how AI can be used without compromising academic integrity.
In an interview for an N.C. Bar Association article, Littlejohn explained how AI and truthfulness can co-exist.
“Some professors were concerned about cheating and plagiarism and about how it may influence the critical thinking of students,” she said. “Legal professionals and legal educators need to embrace it and work with it instead of working against it and put safeguards in place to protect academic integrity.”
In Brooks’ paralegal classes, she uses her AI tools to spark discussion and add liveliness to the dryer course topics.
She recalled a recent course on the topic of agency principal law, which addresses fiduciary relationships. She allowed that while it’s not one of the more exciting areas of law, it’s an important foundation for understanding business law, transactions and fiduciary responsibility.
“I fired up ChatGTP and prompted it to give us a problem that required us to consider the duties and obligations between an agent and a principal,” Brooks said.
The software generated a representative problem in seconds.
“I walked my students through that problem, and we made about a thousand arguments, and they were so engaged and excited,” she said. “We went 25 minutes over the lecture time, and at the end, I could just see the lightbulbs going off, and it was amazing.”
Across the legal profession, lawyers and paralegals have expressed concern that artificial intelligence will take their jobs, but Littlejohn’s students aren’t worried about that.
“AI can’t empanel a jury, and it can’t serve as a judge, or try a case,” she said.
AI also can’t perform the personal tasks paralegals typically take on, such as performing customer service, expressing empathy or providing in-person support and feedback to attorneys in the office and the courtroom.
“I think we have to make sure we’re clear on what AI does and what it doesn’t do,” Littlejohn said. “AI does not think, and what it does do is essentially regurgitate information that it has already been fed from a data set.”
In 2021, a $5 million grant from Intel funded the NCCU Technology Law and Policy Center to help students become tech-savvy in their practices and understand technology as it applies to the law. The grant also provides summer internships for law students at Intel Corp. and mentoring, networking and scholarship opportunities.
The center offers a Certified Information Privacy Professional certificate program to give law students a broad-based education in the tech field and more marketable skills in tech law.
Like Brooks’ online paralegal program at Reynolds Community College, the center also seeks to diversify the legal technology landscape and provide attorneys a career path they might not have considered.
“I think most attorneys come into law school thinking they’ll practice what they see on TV and in society in general, like personal injury, civil rights, criminal law,” Littlejohn said. “But you don’t see much about tech law, which could be a lucrative path for them.”
She predicts technology-related practice areas such as intellectual property, privacy and copyright will expand as artificial intelligence becomes more prevalent.
Brooks says she became interested in artificial intelligence about seven years ago when she taught a class on the stock market and asked her students to look for companies to invest in. A few gamers in her classroom discovered Nvidia, which made artificial intelligence computer chips for video games and was a rising star in the AI world. Later, Nvidia spun off Synthesia, an AI text-to-speech bot tool. After noticing Synthesia on Instagram, Brooks used her grant to create educational content with its software without realizing its connection to the company her class had invested in back in 2016.
“I remember thinking the way they were using AI to make training videos was so cool, and I realized we could use it as an education tool, too,” she said.
She uses the AI application to create fresh course material by setting forth her learning objectives, the tone she wants to present and other data. The software uses these data points to generate a script, which she edits.
“It’s incredible and so exciting,” she said. “What would take me an hour now takes me four minutes, and it is better than the work product I could have done on my own.”
Littlejohn and Brooks believe their use of technology in teaching future lawyers and paralegals to improve efficiency and enhance their jobs in the real world will help enhance access to justice.
After all, the law and policy center is committed to producing lawyers who will use technology in alignment with the law school’s mission to facilitate the efficient, effective and ethical practice of law and increase the access of legal information and services to underserved communities.
At the community college, Brooks also believes that by increasing her students’ comfort level with technology, they’ll use it to build efficiencies, which might lead to less expensive legal options for clients with limited means.
She’s gathering feedback from her students that will influence how she uses the bots to deliver education going forward, and she believes that AI can make a positive difference in the legal profession and society as a whole.
“I believe if educators are willing to use the power of artificial intelligence for the common good and are committed to that intention, AI could be a dynamic and innovative tool that enhances lives for the better,” she said.