November/December 2019

Future Proofing

Is There a Chatbot on Your Staff?

Dan Pinnington & Reid Trautz

While many readers of this column use Siri or Alexa on a daily basis without a second thought, most will also say they are annoyed when these little fake humans pop up on a website asking you to stop to chat when all you want to do is a quick drive-by. However, no matter how annoying these snippets of technology may seem today, in a few short years most law firms will have a chatbot helping with some of the work your lawyers and staff are doing today.

Types of Chatbots

A chatbot is an artificial intelligence program that simulates interactive human conversation by using common predetermined phrases in auditory or text-based formats. Presently most of us are familiar with them on customer service lines or websites as they try to engage us to provide information or purchase a product. In the legal field, chatbots (or bots for short) are showing up in several places.

Website bots encourage online visitors to engage and interact rather than just surf past the website. Many bots are created to perform a range of services from providing basic information without having to search the website, gathering information from the visitor (e.g., an email address) or encouraging visitors to schedule an appointment through an online portal. As much as anything, these are really marketing bots—to assist with client marketing and converting potential clients into actual ones.

The second type of bot showing up in some firms are administrative bots. These bots may also be on your website but can be on other public-facing platforms including Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype and Slack, to name a few. These bots are being built to enter a time docket, create an invoice, accept online payments, generate a commonly used document (e.g., a retainer agreement or letter), send prescheduled appointment reminders or otherwise interact with clients instead of a human doing it.

The third type of chatbot in a firm is the paralegal bot. These more sophisticated bots are just beginning to emerge, but we believe are the biggest opportunity for the average law firm, no matter the practice area.

More Sophisticated Bot Interactions

Paralegal bots are built to engage existing clients in dialogue for information, forms completion, basic legal analysis and more. They are mostly text-based today—with both the human and bot keying in the text—but more advanced bots can now recognize auditory language in the same manner as Siri, Alexa and Cortana. These chatbots will not totally replace paralegals, but they will cut down on the amount of time a paralegal spends with a client, thereby helping to cut the costs of delivering legal services.

Sophisticated legal chatbots are already working out there in the world on such websites as Hello Divorce and mobile apps like DoNotPay. The technology to build a bot is not hard to obtain or maneuver, but it does take significant time, money and sophisticated legal knowledge to create a bot that can work independently of a human. Paralegal bots enhance the work of a paralegal and lawyer but do not fully replace trained professionals.

For example, after an initial consultation and agreement to represent the client, a lawyer or firm paralegal spends a significant amount of time on-boarding the client. There is more information to gather, usually via further in-person meetings, emails or phone calls; there are client documents to obtain; deadlines to convey to the client and place on a calendar within a firm; and often a client’s medical, family or financial history to obtain. These tasks are often done by a paralegal, legal assistant or solo lawyer. But what if this could be done by a bot rather than a person? Consider how much time this could save.

Instead of a paralegal playing phone tag with clients, the client would log in to a secure law firm portal and choose one of several chatbots with which to engage to convey the information needed by the firm. The chatbot leads the client through a series of questions to which the client could respond through text or voice, depending on the chatbot technology chosen by the firm. Clients can now provide this information any time, any day, not just when your paralegals are in the office. Certainly a paralegal or lawyer will review the information provided or documents uploaded by the client, but only using a fraction of the time previously needed.

Of course, unfortunately, there will still be chatbot-human miscommunications, just as there are lawyer-client miscommunications (poor communication, misunderstanding and no communications are the biggest single cause of malpractice claims), but chatbots have the potential to reduce errors. A properly programmed chatbot will ask all the necessary questions in every client interaction, unlike a lawyer or paralegal who might miss a question on occasion, and bots may do a better job of identifying atypical situations. They could also cross-check or verify the information provided to them.

Clients Will Learn to Like Them

Chatbots allow greater convenience for the client, and they reduce the costs of delivering legal services. We call that a win-win scenario. Technology exists today that can build bots that can handle many paralegal aspects of a busy law firm. There are companies helping law firms build bots, and they work with someone in the firm who needs to make sure each bot works the way the firm needs it to work within the current workflow processes. While building a custom bot from the ground up is a time-consuming task, undoubtedly vendors will be selling inexpensive off-the-shelf bots for common tasks within a few years.

The abilities of conversational artificial intelligence are growing quickly at the same time the consumer marketplace is getting more comfortable with this time-saving and convenient technology. The days of annoying chatbots will soon be behind us. In the not-too-distant future your clients will be totally comfortable interacting with a chatbot, and they may even expect you to have a chatbot on staff. To help future proof your practice, there should be someone at your office exploring how to make this convergence work for your clients and your firm.

Dan Pinnington

Dan Pinnington is the president and CEO of Lawyers’ Professional Indemnity Company and was the driving force behind the innovative practicePRO claim prevention initiative. He is a past editor-in-chief of Law Practice and was chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2001.

Reid Trautz

Reid Trautz is the director of the Practice and Professionalism Center of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. He is a long-standing member of the ABA Law Practice Division, serving as chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2012 and currently he serves as co-chair of the Futures Initiative.