DOJ appoints first-ever chief AI officer – Will law firms follow? 

The Department of Justice announced yesterday (22 February) that it has appointed it first-ever chief artificial intelligence officer, Princeton University professor Jonathan Mayer, to help the DOJ keep pace with rapidly evolving scientific and technological developments.

Mayer, who has a Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford University and a J.D. from Stanford Law School, is an assistant professor at Princeton University’s Department of Computer Science and School of Public and International Affairs. His research has focused on the intersection of technology, policy, and law with an emphasis in criminal procedure, national security, and consumer protection.  

As CAIO we’re told that he will work on intra-departmental and cross-agency efforts on AI and adjacent issues. He will also lead the DOJ’s newly-established Emerging Technology Board, which coordinates and governs AI and other emerging technologies across the department. 

“The Justice Department must keep pace with rapidly evolving scientific and technological developments in order to fulfill our mission to uphold the rule of law, keep our country safe, and protect civil rights,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland. “Jonathan’s expertise will be invaluable in ensuring that the entire Justice Department — including our law enforcement components, litigating components, grantmaking entities, and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices — is prepared for both the challenges and opportunities that new technologies present.” 

The rise of the chief AI officer is being closely watched by law firms, and last year US national law firm Michael Best & Friedrich became one of the first to have an AI focussed C-Suite role with the appointment of Sarah Alt as chief process and AI officer. 

With reference to the DOJ’s appointment of Mayer, the head of knowledge at an Am Law top 20 law firm told us: “I’m not sure if it will be chief or director of AI, but all will follow.” 

There appears currently to be a different prevailing opinion in the UK, where most firms are driving their AI strategies through existing technology roles. Derek Southall, head of the UK Legal IT Innovators Group and founder and CEO of Hyperscale Group said: “We see many firms both developing and implementing their AI strategies but to date most of this is being driven by IT directors, heads of innovation, data scientists, or functional heads. The day may come when some firms hire chief AI officers but at the moment this work is taking place largely within existing functions. At the moment this model seems to be working assuming firms have got all bases covered and everyone is clear who is responsible for what.” 

Tony McKenna, who is director of information technology and change at UK top 100 law firm Howard Kennedy and president of the International Legal Technology Association was more bullish about the fact that this dedicated role is not necessary, commenting to Legal IT Insider: “This comes in a long line of chief ‘something’ officer in this space that come and go. I don’t see or hear anything in this area. Mostly we (CIO’s, IT directors and innovation people) are working on, ‘What’s the use case for all this AI’, and ‘Where do I focus my limited resources and capacity for change on’. I suggest a chief AI officer would in some ways, if they are not just a policy maker, become frustrated somewhat like the chief innovation officers have. I feel that the head of technology working closely with the head of knowledge within any firm will make the most sense of AI.”