TORONTO — Panelists at Thomson Reuters’ 2017 Emerging Legal Technology Forum discussed the rise of chatbots in the legal industry and how it is improving the relationship between clients and law firms with an even greater potential to improve access to justice.
Dennis Garcia, Assistant General Counsel at Microsoft, noted that his company has deployed chatbots in at least three different ways. First, Microsoft is using Q&A Maker to allow sets of frequently asked questions to be asked in dialogue with a chatbot. Microsoft sees a great application of this by having chatbots provide the same common responses to requests for proposals to Microsoft sales professionals, Garcia said, adding that now, the inhouse legal team routinely answer those sales RFPs and it’s time-consuming.
Second, Microsoft’s immigration legal team currently uses chatbots to help business clients with immigration needs. “The [chatbots] help with the visa process and intake,” he explained, noting that this is crucial and timely, as immigrants qualified to remain in the United States under DACA must renew their work permits within the next two weeks. It also helps Microsoft keep up with the highly competitive and exclusive pool of H1-B visas, he added.
Finally, Microsoft has created many resources for their sales teams on compliance with the European Union’s upcoming General Data Protection Regulation, but it’s almost too much information. Garcia said the company is using a chatbot to convey that information to the sales teams quickly, so they in turn can provide that information to their business clients.
Josh Lenon, Lawyer in Residence at Clio, noted that with Clio’s application programming interfaces (APIs), they are seeing many attorneys building chatbots into their practices, often as a front-end service available through their firm website or through Facebook Messenger in order to screen clients. Chatbots are good at screening out “tire-kicking” clients who just need questions answered, but are not seeking other legal help or services.
“This frees up attorneys to shift focus from those who won’t become paying clients to those who will,” said Lenon, adding that the LawDroid chatbot (which uses simple decision trees to guide a user to creation of a full output of California business incorporation documents) has freed up its creator in a way a lawyer couldn’t without devoting significant amounts of time. Using the chatbot instead “opens up his time to develop further services for his clients.”
Improving Access to Justice with Chatbots
Chatbots can be successfully deployed to act in a triage fashion to help masses of people quickly — probably one of their most important uses. Many of the 143 million Americans whose data was compromised in the Equifax breach were helped by the DoNotPay bot to file small claims initiatives in any of the 50 states by answering just two simple questions, Lenon said, adding that such a large number of people could never have been reached by a traditional lawyer.
“Chatbots have the ability to react very quickly and have a broad reach, which can be both a positive and a negative,” he said.
In a similar fashion, cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI) as well as chatbots could be used to enable attorneys who have been displaced by natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires, to help their similarly uprooted clients quickly. “Robust solutions are giving you access to data and enabling attorneys to be emergency responders,” Lenon explained. If law firms are not investing in these services, they may not be agile enough to deal with changes in the law or assist in these types of access to justice situations, which occur for displaced folks regardless of whether they are destitute, he noted.
Microsoft’s Garcia agreed, and said a best practice for deploying chatbots is managing expectations with your business clients. “My clients want my personal touch,” he said. “I have to convince them that if they work with these chatbots, it will allow myself and my team to pursue higher-level work for them.” Garcia recommends approaching your clients’ senior leadership and convincing them that although there may be some short-term adjustments, in the long run it will allow you to serve them better on more important matters.
“Using chatbots frees us up from mundane tasks and routine matters that take up my time and allows me to do higher-impact and higher-value work, such as helping them tell a story from a business development perspective,” said Garcia.
Fernando Garcia, Nissan Canada’s General Counsel, said that deploying new technologies doesn’t have to be a huge investment of time or money. When he worked at a smaller legal department previously, Garcia said his team was overwhelmed with last minute calls for documentation from business members crossing the US-Canada border, resulting in confusion and sometimes incorrect answers. Garcia described how he created a power presentation and added hyperlinks to create a very simple decision tree, asking questions such as the individual’s reason for entering the country and how long they’d be staying. Then the user was told which specific documents to bring and whom to contact. Garcia said this homemade precursor to a chatbot resulted in increased efficiency for the legal team and increased customs compliance as well as leaving the travelers feeling confident and knowledgeable.
Chabots Uses Going Forward
While the conversation on how chatbots can help reduce the access to justice gap was interesting, the use of chatbots to drive even more efficiency in the law firm/client relationship also provides rich possibilities.
Could law firms deploy chatbots in conjunction with machine-learning or other forms of augmented intelligence to guide lawyers in the best resources to use to start a project? Could a chatbot automatically supply the most commonly-used clauses or phrases for a type of document or, as Fernando Garcia fantasized, work with AI and a contract management system to warn that the clause you have selected was deemed a high-risk clause in the past? Beyond those examples, could chatbots interface with a matter management system to allow clients to self-serve some of the most basic needs and questions they have — where are we on this matter? and how much more will it cost me?
These are interesting questions, and we’ll have to watch to see if law firms and corporations will begin to think about how chatbot technology could transform their own practices and relationships.