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Dayton Docket

Law Commencement Address: Choosing Personal Growth in Response to the AI Revolution in Legal Services

By Dean Andrew Strauss

On behalf of our faculty and staff, it is my great privilege to welcome you to the commencement exercises for the JD, MSL and LLM classes of 2023. This year we celebrate many Dayton Law milestones and other markers of change. 

Among them, exemplifying our pride of place as one of America’s most innovative law schools, in the Fall of 2019, we were among the first four ABA accredited schools to accept a class of students into an online JD program. And, now four years later, those students will receive their diplomas this morning. Boding well for the future of that Program, I am very proud to announce that all three of our first graduates who finished early and took the February Bar Exam, passed the February Bar Exam. 

And, among those three, Catherine McHugh received Maine’s award for obtaining the highest score in that state. So, congratulations to Catherine and congratulations to all our class of 2023 February bar passers, both online and residential (where we also, by the way, have a 100% February pass rate).  

Our February takers have clearly set the bar—so to speak—for the rest of you graduates to meet on the upcoming July bar exam. 

In another milestone, during this academic year, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first opening of the Law School in 1922. The School began with 20 students taking night classes from adjunct faculty in one room in St. Mary’s Hall. Little could President Reverend Joseph Tetzlaff, Dean John Shea, and the School’s other founders have imagined that 100 years later we would be a global law school, boasting partnerships with 13 law faculties around the world and graduate students from 37 different countries, or that we would be graduating this year 183 students from four different MSL, LLM and JD programs.

In another kind of marker of changing times, professors James Steiner Dillon, Pamela Izvaranu, Kate Jackson, and Dyebo Shabalala will be leaving the University. Each has in their own way contributed greatly to the School of Law, and they will be very much missed. 

Finally, a personal milestone: two weeks ago, I announced that I will be stepping down from the deanship at the end of the fall semester. The decision after eight and one-half years to join the faculty, and transition to the next stage of my career, was a very difficult one. Being your dean has been a tremendous honor and the highlight of my professional life. During my deanship we have been on a remarkable trajectory towards becoming one of America’s great law schools, and I am so proud of everything we have accomplished. I have enormous gratitude for our outstanding faculty, staff, students, University Partners (President Spina and Provost Benson) and our entire UDSL family of alumni and friends. I thank you all for making this incredible journey with me. 

All these milestones mark this day. But today’s biggest milestone, and the very purpose of this commencement ceremony is to commemorate all of you graduates commencing into a new post-law school chapter of your careers.  

Graduates, after two, three, or four years of preparation, your student days are at an end. Your futures are, of course, very much unknown. But what is certain is that your impending lives as legal professionals will be very different from your pasts, and that they will also be very different from anything previous generations of legal professionals have known.    

We are, after all, going through technological revolutions in a great many areas, but nowhere is the current pace of change more awe inspiring than in the dramatic advent of generative artificial intelligence that burst upon the scene just months before your graduation, and promises to upend the legal services industry as we have known it. 

You can ask AI programs such as Chat GPT and its legal industry cousins to perform any of the cognitive tasks that define legal work. Ask it to draft questions for interrogatories. Ask it to answer specific legal questions or draft a memo, or a brief, or a table of contents. And almost instantaneously it will produce grammatically clean and compositionally well-structured answers. 

Yes, it regularly produces wrong content, or in the AI vernacular it “hallucinates,” but in a simulation conducted by law professors Katz and Bommarito, the second generation of Chat GPT, GPT-4, already scored in the 90th percentile on the Uniform Bar Exam, and remember, this is the most primitive version of generative AI we are likely to ever see.   

So, after all of your dreaded in class cold calls, late nights studying, and white knuckled exams you may be thinking “hey dean, this is a real downer of a graduation speech—couldn’t you at least wait until after the graduation ceremony to inform us of our obsolescence?”

Well, clearly There is a difficult truth that AI will much more inexpensively perform many formulaic legal tasks, but I actually believe this holds tremendous opportunity for all of you and for our society.    

After all, formulaic work becomes pretty boring pretty quickly, and it seems likely that with AI doing that work, client resources and your time will be freed up to improve and expand upon legal services. Where it seems probable that you will add value is in the really challenging, really interesting higher order problem solving and relationship skills that already define the best of our profession.

It will be in that ability to hone in on the one easily overlooked fact in a client’s case that AI would not have the subtlety of mind to notice and that can be expounded upon to become the game changer you need to win that case. 

It will be in the ability to analogize a legal problem in one area of law to a completely different area of the law, placing the rationale for how the law should be interpreted in a completely different light. 

It will be a mastery of the soft skills that spring from being human, that intuitive insight into the intricacies of your client’s personality that allow you to convince her to accept a good settlement or that spontaneous awareness of your negotiating partner’s hidden concerns that allow you to “get to yes.”

So, as you all today look towards your future in our profession, your number one question should be: how do I further my development of these higher order skills?

To answer that question, we first have to understand something about how the capability to do this higher order work develops in the first place. A good place to turn is the work of human development theorists such a Jean Piaget, Laurence Kohlberg, and NYU Law faculty member Carole Gilligan, to name a few.

They tell us that human cognitive and emotional development occurs naturally and sequentially. While human development theorists have many different focuses, their common point of departure springs from the insight that we grow cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually by decentering from one singular point of view to see and experience the world through the vantage points of larger and larger perspectives.

Jean Piaget, for example, tells us that learning before the age of two that objects continue to exist even when we personally can’t see them (object permanence), informs us early that there is a broader perspective on the world than that of our immediate personal view point. 

Then after two, we begin the long process of learning to see physical and emotional realities from the perspective of another person. For example, in a famous and oft repeated experiment, a child of about the age of three, sitting opposite an adult with a ball painted blue on one side and red on the other will typically insist, no matter how many times the adult spins the ball around, that both sides of the ball are the color she can see at the time. She cannot yet adopt the perspective of a second person. 

Then starting at about age 10, the child, developing an even larger third person, or societal perspective, begins to internalize the concept of generalizable rules that apply to everyone. 

Finally beginning at about the age of 12, the child learns to take an even broader—call it a fourth person—perspective that allows her to assume an additional vantage point from which she can synthesize, critique and challenge those rules. 

While it is possible to stop your intellectual and emotional development at this stage or even before, as far as we know, there is no limit to the depth and complexity of perspectives that humans can grow to assume. 

So, the higher order emotional and cognitive skills that will be so valuable to you in the future come out of your natural process of growing, but after those early stages of development that our spontaneous curiosity carries us through, you have to make the choice to continue your growth. 

Much of your education at UDSL has been in the nature of this choice. Every time you engaged in a Socratic questioning, where your professor asked you to assume the perspective of the plaintiff, and then the defendant, and then the public at large, adopting a third person policy perspective, you have been engaging in this growth process. 

And through our ecumenical Catholic and Marianist orientation you have as well been invited to explore your spirituality through a variety of different lenses.

As you know from law school, continuing to grow, to gain deeper and deeper and broader and broader perspectives on the world, is not always easy. It takes mental discipline, and it can be hard to part with older perspectives. 

But Continuing this cognitive and emotional growth throughout your lives will not only allow you to succeed in the AI driven legal services profession of the future, but it will also offer other life changing rewards as well. 

You can multiply your career possibilities by employing your expanding capacities to integrate your legal perspective with perspectives from business, the sciences and even the arts.

And in our fraught political times, as you gain appreciation for an ever-increasing multiplicity of social perspectives, perhaps you can help your fellow citizens to better see the world through each other’s eyes. 

Finally, what can make for a more ultimately satisfying inner life than to continue to deepen your ability to see the world cognitively, emotionally, AND spiritually in all of its wondrous depth and complexity far beyond your own narrow first-person perspective. 

In the bold new ever-changing world, you are entering into, I wish you all the gift of growth, and with it the ability to meet both your professional and personal challenges with increasing multiplicity of perspectives, depth of understanding, and ultimately fulfillment of purpose. 

Good luck and Godspeed.

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