What Is a Chatbot and What Is It Doing in My Law Firm?

Mary E. Vandenack of Vandenack Weaver, LLC, says, “My mantra for technology is to use it for processes that are repeatable and predictable.” (Photo by Don Shepard/Don Shepard Photography)
Emily Kerr
The Daily Record

Imagine a world in which companies could save significant time and increase productivity. How? By including chatbots in their arsenal of technology.

Lately, in the corporate community chatbots have made a noticeable impact on the job force by taking the place of lower-level employees. They perform tasks in a law firm, for example, that were once designated to junior partners, paralegals and legal secretaries. In an article from Forbes.com, noted futurist Michio Kaku notes, “The job market of the future will consist of those jobs that robots cannot perform” because of how dramatically they will transform the work force.”

However, in the opinion of Mary E. Vandenack of Vandenack Weaver, LLC, “my mantra for technology is to use it for processes that are repeatable and predictable.”

Essentially, a chatbot is a conversational agent made up of software that simulates human speech and interacts with a person via telephone or computer “chat box.” Have you ever ordered a pizza through your Facebook Messenger? Ordered an Uber ride via that same Messenger? Then you’ve interacted with a chatbot.

There are web-based applications as well as stand-alone apps, which are now being utilized, in some cases, as the first level of a corporation’s customer support system.

In England, LawBot, was developed by a group of law students at the University of Cambridge to help victims of crime by providing a preliminary assessment of their situation and then providing them with information on what actions are available for them to pursue.

Vandenack recommends the use of chatbots in the RFP (request for proposal) process and for answering frequently asked questions, noticing recently that “one of the places we’re seeing the bots being used is in contract review.”

Artificial Intelligence technology is also being used in some law firms to proofread and standardize certain documents for clients, which will soon be offered as technology improves. Since they are becoming so versatile and Artificial Intelligence software is beginning to take hold in the corporate infrastructure, the future has great potential for these learning machines. However, the technology is still in its infancy, using simple input and response algorithms to assist its users.

Eventually, chatbots and AI will be able to take over the time-consuming processes and mundane tasks from law firm staff, freeing employees up to spend more time serving their clients’ legal needs. Chatbots also give those that may need assistance outside the typical parameters of an eight-to-five workday the opportunity to get answers they need without an inconvenient wait time. These systems require a lot of data to run and can cost law firms a sizeable investment to launch, but in the end, chatbots can streamline the entire RFP process for law firms and other companies alike.

Beginning in the 1990s and only growing since then, chatbots have adapted and slowly gained traction in the technological world. To assist a customer or client, chatbots go through a process of recognition and response called parsing, which interprets and then decides which of a series of appropriate responses the user may be looking for based on the information presented. While some chatbots deliver a seamless, human-like experience, others deliver long pauses while processing information and present themselves clearly as robots.

James Pieper, an attorney and colleague of Vandenack, describes his philosophy on the technology:

“I think, for so many people, it’s this black box out there; you don’t know where it’s coming from. The problem is people don’t have a lot of transparency in terms of where the decisions are being made and how it learns to make these decisions.”

While large, internationally well-known law firms such as Norton Rose and Foley Lardner are among those to integrate chatbots into their repertoire – they are using Neota Logic applications – Vandenack insists “the legal world is a little behind when it comes to technology.”

Experts predict chatbots and the use of Artificial Intelligence technology in law firms will soon change the face of the legal community. Where once junior attorneys and partners were the only means of serving clients, these intelligent programs are becoming more and more integral to the legal process, rendering humans less necessary as time goes on.

A couple of other uses of chatbots are Docubot, that works through lawyers’ websites to help consumers generate legal documents and that also performs client intake, and Legalibot from Spain, which helps users compose legal documents and contracts through Facebook Messenger.

Luckily for attorneys, “right now, the potential is greater than the reality,” says Vandenack.

One struggle with chatbots is that they are limited by the algorithms that are programmed within them. If a chatbot has a very mundane algorithm with a limited ability to interpret information, the results can be frustrating for users. Perhaps the most difficult part for chatbots’ ability to learn and interpret is spoken language itself. Including nuances, sarcasm, and turn of phrase in the English language, it is no wonder chatbots struggle to interpret the meaning of client questions. Sometimes, there is no substitute for the judgment and interpretation of a conscious human being.

As chatbots in the future become increasingly integral to everyday life in the legal field, the question of liability will surely be an issue that needs to be addressed. As humans are replaced by artificially intelligent creations – created by outside companies – there will need to be close attention paid to how the laws governing them will adapt and change. Security and confidentiality are two concerns.

“This is why, in the legal world, you see things move so slowly,” Vandenack says, “if we have a chatbot on our website and it is answering questions, there is sort of a distinction between general information and legal advice. If the chatbot on the website is answering questions, that’s where we run into liability. If we allow a chatbot to give legal advice, we’d better be sure its got good programming behind it.”

Chatbots have proven themselves to be incredibly useful, increasing productivity while eliminating mundane tasks that companies typically pay their attorneys and other employees to perform. While there are certainly benefits to having a digital assistant, legal professionals must be increasingly aware of how much responsibility can be delegated to an automated system. However, if a balance between man and machine can be maintained, chatbots look to eventually be the new “Friday” in every office across the globe.


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