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Over the last few years chatbots have become increasingly prevalent on consumer facing websites, often providing a first line of customer support. The legal sector has been more tentative in adopting chatbot technology but some firms and legal teams have taken the plunge. So how does a chatbot work and what benefits can it bring?
Chatbots are essentially sophisticated search engines which allow humans to query computer databases in a user friendly way. They are designed to mimic two-way dialogue, often asking questions or having a sort of ‘conversation’ with the user, with the aim of providing them with the most relevant information or guiding them to a relevant part of a website etc.
Aside from their search functionality, one of the defining features of chatbots is their natural language processing (NLP) ability. NLP enables a human to pose questions or converse with a chatbot using regular phrases, rather than search strings. Not only can a well programmed chatbot understand a natural language query, but they will then be able to come back with an appropriate natural language response.
It is worth noting that most search engines are able to interpret natural language searches (e.g. “When do the clocks go back?”). And virtual assistants such as Alexa and Siri are able to interpret natural voice queries. The voice search function of Google is even able to remember the previous question and interpret a follow-up question accordingly (eg try “How old is Bill Gates?” and then a follow up question of “How tall is he?” - the software knows that “he” is referring to Bill Gates).
One of the ways chatbots have been effectively applied to the legal sector is in the realm of access to justice. Many people who cannot afford to consult a solicitor for legal advice will automatically turn to Google. A better option is one of the programs which have been developed specifically to help individuals seek redress when they would otherwise be left out in the cold. For example, DoNotPay is a free app which helps people appeal their parking tickets.
But most chatbots deployed in the legal sector take the form of virtual receptionists, designed to streamline the process of handling online enquiries by potential clients. The chatbots are integrated into the firm’s website and interact with visitors, either directing them to the most relevant lawyer or pointing them to an appropriate webpage for more information. One of the most famous law chatbots is Billy Bot which acts as a virtual junior barrister’s clerk for Clerksroom chambers, fielding website enquiries and connecting solicitors (or direct access clients) to barristers.
Aside from being an interesting talking point and demonstrating a modern approach, there are some tangible benefits of adopting a chatbot:
As the functionality of chatbots continues to improve, they will gradually be able to take on additional tasks and help out with other areas of practice management. Lawyers and teams who are already familiar with the technology will be better placed to take advantage of the forthcoming advances.
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Amy is an established writer and researcher, having contributed to publications, such as The Law Society, LPM, City A.M. and Financial IT. Her role at LexisNexis UK involved leading content and thought leadership, as well as writing research reports, including "The Bellwether Report 2020, Covid-19: The next chapter" and "Are medium-sized firms the change-makers in legal?"
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