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Chat show: How chatbots can grow your business

11 January 2019

In the next in a series of articles discussing the evolution of the legaltech sector and how it could revolutionise the legal industry, Law Society partner and equity crowdfunding platform Seedrs explains how chatbots can be used to enhance your practice.

Chatbots have been around for a long time but have been gaining traction recently. Many retailers are using chatbots as a frontline form of customer service, and increasingly consumers are interacting with them on a regular basis.

Chatbots are also becoming more sophisticated, able to hold increasingly human-like conversations - although we’re certainly not in Turing test-territory yet.

So how do chatbots work exactly, and how are they transforming the legal sector in particular?

What are chatbots?

A chatbot is essentially a piece of software which allows a human to interact with a computer database using natural language.

It is similar to a search engine, but normally has a discrete function and includes dialogue to provide the user with an answer or relevant information.

Chatbots include these primary forms of technology:

  • Search - this allows a user to ask a question and determine the best pre-programmed response.
  • Natural language processing (NLP) - this enables the chatbot to understand a query posed by a human in the most natural form of language possible. This may include speech recognition. After interpreting a question, a well-programmed chatbot will provide a response in natural language (as opposed to outputting raw data).
  • Artificial intelligence - during a conversation, chatbots will often ‘learn’ from a user’s input, which means they will be able to use all the user’s responses collectively to reach the desired outcome.

Chatbots often operate on the basis of complex decision trees. This means that a conversation will start from a single point and branch out in different directions, depending on the input of a human user at each stage.

Example: Google
Although Google does not market itself as a chatbot, it has an extremely advanced form of NLP which can interpret most queries posed by humans in completely natural language and provide the most relevant results. It also contains a conversational element within its voice search function – for example, it uses voice search to ask: ‘Who is Barack Obama?’, and then follows up with: ‘How old is he?’ (in this case, Google already knows that the user is asking about the 44th President of the United States, so it assumes the pronoun ‘he’ in the second query is referring to Barack Obama).

How can chatbots be used by law firms?

Broadly, the legal sector is using chatbots in three ways:

  1. Access to justice - some chatbots have been designed to help individuals with a legal problem who are unable to ask a lawyer (or whose issue would not be worth even the most modest legal fee). A good example is DoNotPay, a free app which helps people appeal parking tickets.
  2. Professional search - legal research carried out by lawyers is often search query-based. Some of the larger legal publishers, such as LexisNexis, are enhancing their research tools with chatbot functionality.
  3. Client-facing chatbots - some law firms have been deploying chatbots to streamline the processing of new queries. This can cut down on secretarial time and ensure that legitimate queries are directed to the most relevant departments (discussed in more detail below).

Chatbots and clients

One client-facing legal chatbot to receive substantial exposure and acclaim is Billy Bot, introduced by barristers’ chambers Clerksroom.

It is designed as a sort of virtual switchboard crossed with a junior barristers’ clerk, and aims to direct clients (both the public looking for a direct access barrister or mediator, and solicitors who wish to instruct counsel) to the most relevant tenant or alternative resource.

Conscious Solutions helped design Billy Bot, and builds chatbots for a variety of law firms across the UK. Rich Dibbins, head of sales and digital strategy consultant, explains that chatbots deployed on websites allow enquiries to be processed 24/7:

‘Some law firms still close for lunch - this is also typically the time [potential new] clients tend to call. What if your chatbot could field enquiries on your website at lunch or over the weekend, so you never miss an opportunity? ... Over the last 12 months, we have run pilot chatbot schemes for five of our clients, ranging from a sole practitioner through to a top 200 UK law firm.’

Conscious Solutions disclosed the following statistics:

  • 48% of all chats initiated were ‘meaningful’, of which:
    • 42% were live chat requests
    • 30% were enquiries from clients
    • 28% were website search requests.

These figures indicate that a large number of clients are at least willing to engage with chatbots - so could they be a viable route to new instructions?

Clive Smith, managing partner at Lewes Smith, is pleased so far with the results of their new chatbot, Woody.

‘We wanted to have the next level of engagement with our clients. The Conscious chatbot was the perfect fit. Since Woody has gone live, we have seen a 35.8 per cent increase in our website visits and our bounce rate is in single figures. Woody has been live for a little over seven months, and we are very excited to see how he will progress over the next 12 months.’

What does the future hold?

Most chatbots used currently by law firms focus on fielding new enquiries and shy away from providing any information which could be construed as legal advice.

However, digital disruptors in the market which program their chatbots to give answers to basic legal queries may force firms to adapt.

In Australia, Norton Rose Fulbright has launched Parker, a chatbot which responds to questions about Australia's mandatory data breach notification scheme. This is perhaps a taste of things to come, although at the moment firms are only flirting with the idea of providing legal information via chatbots.

As with most legaltech products, the development of chatbots for the legal sector will, to some extent, depend upon investment, either by law firms or third parties.

Equity crowdfunding platform Seedrs has helped several businesses to find capital for building chatbots, including Plum (a personal money assistant which deploys a chatbot over Facebook Messenger to chat to users about their financial goals) and We Build Bots (which aims to apply AI and chatbot technology to help businesses increase customer services efficiency).

Funding chatbot development in the legaltech sector will help lawyers and their clients to take advantage of the benefits of this technology.

One way to stay up to speed with legaltech and other disruptive technology start-ups is through our partnership with Seedrs. By joining Seedrs, you will become part of a community driving the evolution of the start-up ecosystem.

Check out the latest investment opportunities currently live on Seedrs

Keep your eye out over the coming weeks for more articles that will explain what legaltech could mean for the legal community.

Seedrs is an endorsed partner of the Law Society. For more information, visit their Membership Extra page.

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