December 18, 2018 TECHNOLOGY

Chatbots for Justice! Is That a Thing?

By Patrick Palace

There is a simple problem to providing access to justice (A2J) to people who cannot afford the market rates for lawyers: Lawyers cost too much. Conversely, there is a simple solution: provide legal advice and services at a rate anybody can afford, maybe even free. There it is. Boom! Problem identified and solution nailed. You’re welcome.

Now for the more substantive heavy lifting. How do we deliver legal services at an affordable rate? Well, “we” as lawyers not are so good at this. But “we” as disembodied chatbots? Amazing at it.

For those of you who may not have used chatbots, they are computer programs designed to mimic human conversation. They create an artificially generated response based on the input from an actual person, using dialogue-based text. In other words, a chatbot is the thing you may think is a person on your screen that you are talking with.

I know that some people may suggest that this is just the kind of artificial intelligence (AI) lawyer robot that could enslave lawyers and create a superior race of emotionless overlords. Well . . . maybe in a new Netflix sci-fi series, but in the real world chatbots can and do provide legal information to consumers 24/7, 365 days a year. They don’t sleep, which means that they can help more people, more quickly, more consistently, more accurately, and more timely. Did I mention that most chatbot services are free?

But are chatbots better than lawyers? Short answer: No, but they can do things lawyers can’t afford to do and solve problems too small for any firm. Tom Martin, the CEO of LawDroid, a company that creates chatbots and other advanced tech tools, recently wrote that, when asked ‘What’s most important when communicating with a company?,’ 68 percent of consumers responded that ‘Reaching desired outcome’ was paramount, followed by ‘ease of experience’ (48 percent), ‘speed’ (44 percent), and ‘convenient time’ (39 percent).” In fact, according to Martin, “69 percent of consumers would consider talking to a chatbot over a human being because a chatbot can provide an instantaneous answer.”

So, if a chatbot can help consumers find the way to get the legal outcome they need, make the user experience consumer friendly, and do it quickly, 24/7, then why not create an army of chatbots to bridge the A2J gap? Fortunately, we are not alone in this logic.

Meet Joshua Browder. Browder is famous for being the then-18-year-old creator of a parking ticket chatbot to fight parking tickets. The original DoNotPay app, which launched in the UK and then in New York, has been used by more than 175,000 consumers and saved users more than $5 million in violation fees. It was free. Still is.

DoNotPay has grown with time and substantial success. It remains a free chatbot that offers AI-powered legal counsel, and now it is also accessible on mobile phones. Its scope has been broadened to provide legal services for problems too small for lawyers but needed by consumers. According to the app, DoNotPay can be used to “sue anyone by pressing a button,” but its focus is on niche legal pain points between consumers and government bureaucracies and consumers and corporate red tape that costs consumers needlessly and unjustly. Browder’s chatbot now helps consumers fight volatile airline prices, data breaches, late package deliveries, and unfair bank fees.

The DoNotPay chatbot is one of many A2J chatbots currently online and going online across the country. There are many more, but here are a couple I think are pretty cool:

  • Visabot (now part of DoNotPay) has reportedly helped more than 50,000 users so far to obtain their residence permits for the United States.
  • SoloSuit is a Utah chatbot that helps consumers with their debt.
  • Larissa Divorce Chatbot by LawDroid lets users ask a variety of questions about divorce.

The popularity of chatbots has spawned a new generation of lawyers and soon-to-be lawyers to create A2J chatbots. Chad Au, for example, is a student in the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. He participated in the 2017 Access to Justice Tech Fellows Program and developed a chatbot for the Legal Aid Society of Hawaiʻi’s website to help consumers access legal answers and resources faster and more easily with a Q and A protocol. Au’s chatbot was made possible by the Access to Justice Tech Fellows Program, which is funded by the national Legal Services Corporation (LSC). The LSC provides up to $4,000 for a ten-week summer fellowship for law students. Fortunately, this program is not unique.

Legal service programs are increasing utilizing chatbots. With the success of like programs, growing amounts of grant money have been allocated to build chatbots where they are most needed.

For example, in the last two years money has been allocated by the LSC to a number of chatbot initiatives now being built in Florida, Kansas, Illinois, Montana, Cleveland, and more.

  • In 2017 Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida received $160,888 to add AI to their online client intake process so that users with more complex legal issues are flagged for services by legal staff.
  • The Kansas Legal Services received $159,110 to develop five instructional videos to guide self-represented litigants and add a “live-chat” feature within automated legal forms.
  • In 2018 the Legal Assistance Foundation in Illinois received a $266,000 Technology Initiative Grant to add AI to better meet the needs of individuals seeking civil legal assistance.
  • The Montana Legal Services Association received $278,714 to improve the quality and availability of civil legal services to low-income Montanans and to create AI-powered legal tools through a new online pro bono legal advice platform, AskKarla.org.
  • The West Tennessee Legal Services and Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services received $229,191 to enhance the statewide portal, HELP4TN.org, by developing a chatbot that interacts online with users to guide them through the process of finding legal resources and delivering legal forms based on user-provided information.

So, are chatbots “the answer” to bridge the A2J gap? No, but they are an obvious workhorse that can do so much, for free or fee, easily, without using any lawyer’s time. That’s the kind of leverage we have been waiting for. And, for those of you thinking that a chatbot might be a great tool for your website to attract clients, vet claims, provide resources, explain rights and remedies, and more, the answer is “Duh!” Indeed, the scope and power of chatbots is just starting to be realized for A2J uses, for use in small and solo firms, public interest firms, government applications, and large corporations. So, next time you are online, take a minute to say “Hello” to our new little problem-solving friends.

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Patrick Palace (@Palacelaw, patrick@palacelaw.com) is the owner of Palace Law, a workers’ compensation and personal injury firm in Tacoma, Washington. He is the past president of the Washington State Bar Association, serves on the Executive Council of the National Conference of Bar Presidents, and chairs The 21st Century Lawyer, a monthly national webinar. Patrick often writes, presents, and podcasts about data-driven law, legal-tech partnerships, and mindfulness. He is the owner of Sunken Cellars, a Washington winery, and is a dedicated yogi who prefers standing on his hands.