Chatbots and apps: freeing up lawyer time and improving access to justice

Can technology save time and improve access to justice? Just ask the in-house team at Microsoft where the software giant’s lawyers are deploying chatbots to answer common questions around sales and immigration issues and free up in-house lawyers to do more high-value work. ​

Chatbots and apps: freeing up lawyer time and improving access to justice
Panelists Jose Fernando Torres Varela, Stanford Law School; Joshua Lenon, Clio; Kristen Sonday, Paladin PBC Inc.; Dennis Garcia, Microsoft; and Fernando Garcia, Nissan Canada discussed the potential of chatbots and other apps for legal services.
Can technology save time and improve access to justice? Just ask the in-house team at Microsoft where the software giant’s lawyers are deploying chatbots to answer common questions around sales and immigration issues and free up in-house lawyers to do more high-value work.


During a panel discussion last week at the Thomson Reuters Emerging Legal Technology Forum panel called Prometheus Unbound: On “Chatbots” Robot Lawyers and Ongoing Access to Justice, lawyers from a variety of backgrounds discussed the opportunities and applications for, and the growing popularity of, legal technology to address pressing needs in the provision of legal services.


Chatbots are computer programs that conduct a conversation with auditory or textual methods. Joshua Lenon, lawyer in residence at Clio, said he thinks there are “tons” of applications for chatbots when it comes to provision of legal services, such as the ability to act in “triage” situations and the ability to reach large numbers of people.


Recent examples such as the DoNotPay chatbot first launched to help people fight parking tickets, and now in use in the wake of the Equifax breach affecting about 143 million Americans, they have in a short period of time rolled out small claims initiatives for 50 states where, through a couple of simple questions, a small claims filing can be created targeting Equifax and the potential damages of their breach.


“Chatbots have the ability to react very quickly and have a broad reach. I think that is both a positive and a negative for those tools,” said Lenon.


There is a debate around whether chatbots are the best way to pursue an action such as the Equifax issue, but Lenon said it’s a dead issue because it’s happening anyway.


“As access to justice becomes more of a technology concern, we should be focusing on what is the right technology for this question, not whether we should be using technology,” he said.


For large corporate or public sector legal departments, chatbots could serve to help busy in-house lawyers transition common questions from sales and other business clients to a simple platform to produce answers quickly.


“At Microsoft, we’re a very big corporate in-house department  — there are more than 1,400 legal professionals scattered throughout the world. Half are lawyers and we’re all very, very busy. So, whenever there is any opportunity for us to de-lawyer our work or get our business clients to do more, if you will, we welcome those opportunities,” said Dennis Garcia, assistant general counsel at Microsoft Corp.


Microsoft has been working to create a number of chatbot platforms to interact directly with business clients. The company has a tool called Q&A Maker that transforms FAQs into a chatbot.


“We had a training earlier this year with our legal professionals on how to use that tool and create chatbots for various applications working with our business clients,” Garcia said.


One example is that as lawyers in the field Garcia and others work closely with sales staff reviewing requests for proposal documents that contain legal questions about Microsoft contracts.


“We have found that as lawyers we’re answering the same questions time and time again. So we’re in the midst of creating a bot our business clients can go to get a lot of the common questions answered from the legal perspective,” he said. “It’s sort of a one-stop shop for business clients to go to get their questions answered.”


Microsoft has also been working with its immigration legal practice group to create a bot to help with visa process and intake of information. There is also a bot focused on resources for the sales force on compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation.


Fernando Garcia, general counsel with Nissan Canada, said the important thing to consider when looking to adopt technology is where your needs are and where you can make the most use of a technology investment.


“Right now, a contract management system for us is that for disaster recovery, etc., is great, but looking a few years down the road, AI that helps read contracts and signals it is a high-risk clause may be critical,” he said. “The question is when do you jump in and buy to get the biggest bang for your buck?”


Lenon said he is seeing a lot of technology being deployed around immigration issues, primarily because the issues are changing rapidly right now.


An example he referenced is the change in the “Dreamer” status in the United States — an initiative introduced by the Obama administration to protect from deportation immigrants brought illegally into the U.S. as children. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is a five-year-old program that was scrapped by President Donald Trump earlier this month.


“That’s 800,000 people who have an Oct. 5 deadline to renew their work permit. If they don’t hit that deadline, their ability to stay in their homes and their jobs — it’s going to be a real nightmare for those people. There’s no way every lawyer in this room could help those people without the investment in technology,” he said.


Kristen Sonday, co-founder and COO of Paladin PBC Inc., which is building a global pro bono platform to increase access to justice, said she sees an opportunity for a human/bot hybrid.


“I think there is a lot of opportunity to use bots and chatbot forms to get information up front and ask a lot of questions on the intake side to ask a lot of questions of clients to determine eligibility, specific needs and where we can match them with lawyers for a positive outcome,” she said. “I think there is a human element that is very important to the pro bono process and don’t want it to be overshadowed.”

Lenon said many lawyers are using chatbots to handle intake information and screen clients.

“It’s been really good for eliminating questions or tire kickers — people who basically have a question on direction but not on services. If they are able to guide those people on the direction they need to go and not waste their time on a non-paying client, it frees them up to focus on clients who have a legitimate legal need or can pay for it and that enables their business goals,” he said.

Microsoft's Garcia emphasized the need to manage expectations with business clients.

“They want to be able to contact me in a nanosecond to do anything and get my personal touch, so we’ve been saying if you work with these chatbots and other resources, it allows myself and my team to look at higher-value work for you — such as helping Microsoft close more cloud computing deals. So there is work to do on the front end from the customer satisfaction perspective,” he said.

Sonday added that she is excited about the possibilities of artificial intelligence to help increase and scale access to justice.

Security and data privacy must also be kept top of mind, said Microsoft’s Garcia.


“Ask how providers are protecting your vitally important data.”


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