The following is a Guest Post written by Zeev Fisher, CEO of Pekama, the legal project management company. (Richard Tromans also contributed to this piece).
From Microsoft to Google, from Facebook to smaller players like Telegram, there are many companies making bots that will talk to you and provide useful information, or guide you through a process.
When I talk to lawyers about bots, I can see right away how the sceptical expressions that I normally encounter when talking about technology transform into true horror.
‘A robot that will write to our clients? That won’t happen,’ they say.
Though in most cases a legal bot would not be ‘writing to a client’, but rather interacting with them and offering advice and guidance, perhaps as a first point of contact via the firm’s website.
We already have legal bots that are helping people with legal problems, such as Joshua Browder’s bot that helps people deal with parking ticket fines. And we have Scottish bot company, Chatomate, that is developing legal bots to help people with legal issues, such as making small claims.
And of course, there are also already highly intelligent expert systems in place at some law firms that provide legal guidance to clients. For example, US law firm Littler Mendelson’s ComplianceHR system that was developed with Neota Logic.
ComplianceHR’s web-based platform offers employers concise information without immediate input from lawyers, as that input has already been ‘stored’ in the expert system that stands behind the client interface. This latter example is not a chat bot, as such, though it operates on the same principle of autonomous systems interacting with law firm clients.
Despite these developments I can understand some lawyers’ surprise at the idea of using chat bots or expert systems that are allowed to communicate with clients. A lot of lawyers like control, especially over the personal relationship with ‘their’ client.
Why Lawyers Need Assistant Bots
Meanwhile there is a case for a different type of bot, which may be more immediately acceptable to traditional lawyers. We can call it an OBTW (‘Oh, By The Way’) bot, or a legal assistant bot.
But first, let’s consider why one would be useful. The main reason they are useful is because they serve a very practical purpose in the processes lawyers must undertake. We see this especially in communications with clients.
There are two broad layers of communications between lawyers and clients:
The first layer is substantive – communication that goes into the details about the meaning of certain contractual clauses and the different options that clients have, with the attendant risks associated with those options.
The second layer is formal – this starts with a standard engagement letter and then includes various formal reports sent to the client, normally based on the same language and terms used before. It also includes important reminders to the client on deadlines and actions that the client needs to take.
Although the substantive part is essential, much of what lawyers do is formal.
The problem that often emerges is that in an era of information overflow clients tend not to identify, or can ignore, non-substantive messages, even if they are very important. I.e. they focus on the meaning of the legal matter, rather than the equally vital legal process.
It is hence very common to have a legal secretary, paralegal or associate (normally, the people first sending the non-formal communications) chasing the partners and asking them to write to the clients to remind them of an important deadline or an important decision or to ensure the gaining of a signature.
This is where the ‘Oh, by the way’ bot can kick in.
Law firms, and particularly law firms that use legal project management tools already, have important client/matter information in their systems. When a partner or a senior lawyer needs to write a message to a client the bot can scan the client matter and related correspondence and help the lawyer to write the next message.
The bot can help by suggesting ideas or information to add to the message, such as reminders of important deadlines, or reminding the lawyer of previous language, such as facts and key terms used for similar messages. The partner can then choose whether to add the additional information or not.
Of course, this would not be a bot in the true sense if it didn’t also respond to questions and didn’t interact with the lawyer in a meaningful way beyond offering prompts.
In short, a true bot can be ‘interrogated’ by the human party for additional information, not just act as a prompt mechanism.
But, the basic idea of an internal legal assistant bot that proactively helps partners with the process elements of working with clients is something that needs to be built (if someone hasn’t done so already…).
If one has not already been developed, perhaps it would be founded upon an existing project management system. It could eventually result in a fairly sophisticated legal bot that would provide real help with formal process matters, give feedback and become an adviser for the lawyers inside the firm to interact with.
The key difference between this type of bot and what we once used to see in office assistants such as Microsoft’s ‘Clippy’, that used to help with issues related to Office software, is that an OBTW bot would likely have a degree of artificial intelligence (AI) to enable it to make probabilistic estimates of what were the right pieces of information to provide a partner.
They could then also be asked, in natural language, to explain their decisions and explore further what may be required, e.g. by then tapping into the firm’s KM system. And by using machine learning the AI-driven bot would also learn when to intervene and make comments or provide information, even when not directly asked to do so.
A really smart legal bot would also have the ability to answer back and tell the partner they might be wrong, correcting them on the facts of the client’s matter or other core information such as recent case law. Though that might take time for lawyers to accept.
Clearly this is just a sketch of what may be developed. But it seems highly likely that bots of this type will be put to work inside law firms in the years ahead, if someone somewhere is not already building them.