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How well is your chatbot performing? Don’t know? Not sure whether you even have one? Worried that you might have one that you don’t know about, or that you don’t want? Worried that you want one and haven’t got one? Worried that when you leave the office at night your chatbot sneaks out and eats your biscuits? Read on.

Chatbots are pieces of software that enable humans to interact with computers without needing a degree in computer science. There are similarities with search engines, but usually there is rather more dialogue involved with a chatbot. Anyone remember that annoying paperclip with a face that used to pop up in Microsoft programmes and ask whether you needed help? If you do, you know what a chatbot is.

The key to a chatbot’s success is in its ability to interpret the natural human language in which it is asked a question, and respond similarly. Increasingly, these pieces of software are able to learn about their users as part of the process, and advances in Artificial Intelligence are making them ever more useful. 

If you worry that it’s all going a bit ‘Terminator’ then be assured that at present there is no known threat of leather-clad cyborgs from the future turning up to reorganise your stationery cupboard. The fact remains that many of us are growing increasingly used to, and comfortable with, voice search software. Giving it friendly and helpful sounding names, like Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant, is merely better marketing that calling it the Megalotron TZ-6500. At the end of the day they’re still chatbots, and they’re here to stay because, increasingly, we rely on them.

Chatbots are alive and well and performing much valued service in the legal sector already. In simple guises (such as a straightforward app) they can provide access to justice for all by answering simple questions or performing basic legal functions that would be out of reach of many people if they had to pay a lawyer for a very straightforward service – there is an app for challenging a parking fine, for example. They can also be used to help lawyers in legal research and, in rather more sophisticated incarnations, are helping some leading law firms to handle the early stages of contact with new clients.

One of the obvious advantages of a client-facing chatbot handling initial contact on your firm’s behalf is that it can do so 24/7. It doesn’t take lunch breaks, or holidays, so your office is never entirely unstaffed. And if you think that people would never accept it and that it would damage your image, the statistics produced by those already using them suggest the opposite. If you’re still skeptical then consider how many people every day find an insurance quote through a well-known website by, apparently, asking a meerkat. The fact is that people are now used to interacting with computers in this way, and provided that other more traditional methods of making contact are still available there is little to lose. 

So, where does a useful chatbot become a problem chatbot (Hint: it has nothing to do with eating your biscuits after hours)? At present very few firms using them would allow the software to offer any kind of legal advice. There is reason to suppose that new software in development by some digital disruptors might force reconsideration of this, but much will come down to how much the legal sector is willing to invest. There are examples out there, both within the legal sector and beyond, of chatbots developed through crowd-funding programmes that have more advanced capability, even to the extent of being able to evaluate information and advise on a course of action, but it should be recognised that if they have been successfully crowd-funded then they are a response to demand. So really, the future of chatbots in the legal sector is up to the legal sector to determine.

There is no denying the apprehension with which many developments in Artificial Intelligence are met presently, and that is a healthy thing. However, the reality is that chatbots are all around us and helping us to run our daily lives even if most of us never really think about their existence. Whatever the size, shape or requirements of your law firm there is, or very soon will be, a chatbot out there for you. And the good news is it won’t look like Arnold Schwarzenegger and it doesn’t want your custard creams.

So, we’d like to challenge you all out there. Tell us… which are your favourite legal tech chatbots? Which are the most disruptive and why? Share them with us on @eleglobalworld or LinkedIn. And if you’re going to be at the Legal Geek Conference on 16th October then let us know because Helen will be and it would be great to talk more about this (and anything else… especially if there are custard creams…)