AI & Law: Legal Ecosystem

Legal ecosystem and the impacts of AI

by Dr. Lance B. Eliot

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Key briefing points about this article:

  • Ecosystems are complex and involve complicated intricacies
  • Yellowstone National Park provides an exemplar of biological ecosystem complexities
  • Analogously, the law and practice of law can be viewed as the legal ecosystem
  • When a change is made to one part of the legal ecosystem this can induce cascading impacts
  • It will be important for AI to be considered as a novel change across the entire legal ecosystem


Biological ecosystems are oftentimes quite complex. Aspects of the ecosystem are intricately linked to other aspects. Making a change to one element can have dramatic cascading impacts.

Let’s utilize an easy-to-grasp example, namely the reintroduction of wolves into the Yellowstone National Park, and then see how this might apply to the law and the practice of law. For those of you that haven’t yet gone there, you really ought to include Yellowstone National Park on your vacation to-do list. This famed wilderness destination is predominantly in Wyoming, though parts extend into Montana and Idaho too, and constitutes a spectacular array of biodiversity and teeming biomes.

Do you like lush forests that seem nearly endless?

Do you enjoy expansive canyons, dramatic alpine rivers, and bubbling hot springs?

Those breathtaking recreational opportunities abound. And, although a bit touristy, there is the gushing geyser known as Old Faithful (yes, you have to go see it, since you would otherwise eventually arrive home and be roundly chastised for not having witnessed this ever-popular spectacle).

Besides the rich landscape, abundant plant life, and all of those majestic trees, you should also be aware that there are wild bears, wild bison, wild elk, and other wild creatures including wild wolves. I realize that the word “wild” was repetitively used in my depiction, but that was intentional. People that visit this vast wilderness are somehow at times under the impression that the animals therein are domesticated and tamed. Please do not fall into that mental trap. This is by-and-large a place for wild animals to roam freely and do as wild animals do.

Okay, this sets the stage for a fascinating tale about what happened when wolves were reintroduced into the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem.

It turns out that wolves in Yellowstone had been pretty much hunted out of existence by humans. Some would construe this as a good thing due to the assumption that wolves are inherently bad and ought to be nixed from the wilderness. All it takes is for a YouTube video to showcase a wolf that takes down a stately elk, and the emotional heartbreak instills a deep-rooted desire to get rid of those evildoer predatory wolves.

When you remove a major element of an ecosystem, it can have a profound effect.

Getting rid of the wolves was not simply an act of isolation. The rest of the ecosystem adjusted accordingly, doing so in ways that turned out to worsen the conditions of Yellowstone. For example, the lack of wolves made life a lot easier for the elks. The elks then multiplied by leaps and bounds (well, okay, that’s a bit of a pun), and they consumed at will the available willows and other related plants.

Meanwhile, the beavers needed those willows to survive during the harsh winters, but the elk used up the willows, leaving the beavers to essentially starve. The beaver population waned. Keep in mind though that the beavers make dams, which allow for ponds and the multiplier effects of stream hydrology to occur (where water flows throughout the wilderness). Dramatic adverse impacts arose to the stinted channeling of water and thus dealt a hefty blow to the fish. Plus, the birds that rely upon a watery landscape and the richness of fish were adversely affected too.

On and on the cascading results emerged, all due to a thinning of the wolves.

By the mid-1990s, there was only one beaver colony remaining. A decision was made by trained wildlife ecologists to reintroduce wolves as part of a newly launched Yellowstone Wolf Project. Subsequently, there are now over nine beaver colonies, the elk are kept in check, the waters are flowing again, and the ecosystem has recalibrated to once again flourishing.

Hopefully, this Yellowstone story proffers sufficient evidence to you that ecosystems have complex interdependencies, and it is rather myopic to assume otherwise. Any of us can easily fail to take this intricacy into account when making ecosystem changes.

I would assert that the same can be said for the legal ecosystem.

Legal scholars emphasize the importance of conceptualizing the law and the practice of law as a complex ecosystem, commonly referred to as the legal ecosystem. When contemplating changes to our judicial processes and manner and mores of adjudication, it is easy to think only about making seemingly singular “isolated” changes, and not adequately anticipate a plethora of cascading results thereupon.

In a fascinating article published in the Iowa Law Review entitled “Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing Legal Complexity,” venerated legal scholars J.B. Ruhl and Dan Katz state that: “Law itself is a complex adaptive system, and it necessarily influences and is influenced by the systems it is intended to regulate or manage. Hence, a principal concern of legal theorists interested in legal complexity has been to develop some sense of how best to respond to the legal system’s complexity, considering that the legal system is just one member of a system of systems.”

Akin to my tale about Yellowstone, their research also leverages the everyday notion of biological ecosystems to illuminate the facets of the legal ecosystem: “One consequence of understanding the “system of systems” nature of legal regimes is the appreciation that tinkering may open up a huge can of worms. Thinking by analogy, consider what can happen in a biological ecosystem if a nonnative species is introduced, as humans have often done for what were believed to be good reasons. Often the species does not survive. Sometimes, though, the introduced species takes hold in its new environment and all chaos breaks loose. The lesson is that intervening in a complex adaptive system is a risky venture.”

AI And The Legal Ecosystem

You might be wondering, what upcoming change might upend the legal ecosystem?

The introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) into the law.

This is initially consisting of semi-autonomous AI legal reasoning systems that are devised to work hand-in-hand with human lawyers. The AI as a legal tool will be at the fingertips of lawyers preparing for a case and provide augmented legal guidance and legal suggestions about how to proceed. Eventually, there is bound to be created more fully autonomous AI-based legal reasoning, and thus no need for working directly with a human lawyer per se. That is to say, the AI system would be considered the equivalent of a human lawyer.

For details on this and other AI and law topics, see my book entitled “AI and Legal Reasoning Essentials” at this link here:

AI is going to have a dramatic impact across all facets of the legal ecosystem.

A mental mistake consists of focusing only on singular and isolated impacts that might arise. For example, some pundits examine only how attorneys and their work might change. Others look only at the impacts on judges. And some analysts examine solely how the public might be impacted. Rarely is there a comprehensive look at the vastness and intricacies of interdependencies that will all adjust and readjust as AI takes hold, ergo rippling throughout the entirety of our judiciary.


Let’s make sure that we adopt a comprehensive legal ecosystem perspective on these matters.

Perhaps you can contemplate this profound matter while watching the breathtaking sunrise across the canyons of Yellowstone, or even while in a childlike trance when witnessing Old Faithful do its tomfoolery. We can assuredly be inspired by other ecosystems to make sure that the legal ecosystem evolves fruitfully.

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Copyright © 2021 Dr. Lance Eliot. All Rights Reserved.

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