Chatbot apps help users communicate their legal needs
When I was at the ABA Techshow this year, a prevalent question on people’s minds seemed to be: “Are the robot lawyers coming?”
In some ways, they’re already here.
Take chatbots. For most people, chatbots are what you see when you go to a website and an automated program starts asking whether you wish to chat. Using natural language, chatbots can simulate human conversation, giving the user the impression that they are talking with an actual person instead of with artificial intelligence. Chatbots are already being used in a variety of ways, including addressing customer needs, educating children, providing investment advice and even debating the meaning of life.
And chatbots can help people with their legal needs. During the Tech for Justice Hackathon plus Veterans event that took place in March during Techshow, first place went to Carry On, a tool designed to help victims of military sexual trauma. An important part of Carry On is Coralie, a chatbot that connects users to resources or services to allow them to report an incident, navigate the justice system or get help.
“If I need help right now and a human isn’t available, that’s a problem, given the world we live in today, as well as our technological capabilities,” said Christy Leos, director of operations at the Internetbar.org, who helped design the chatbot portion of Carry On.
In 2016, Joshua Browder became an instant sensation when his legal chatbot, DoNotPay, overturned nearly 160,000 parking tickets on behalf of users in the United Kingdom and the United States.
A computer science student at Stanford University, Browder designed the bot because he is, in his words, a terrible driver. “I got a bunch of tickets, and when I went to appeal them I found that I was copying the same text over and over,” says Browder, who claims that DoNotPay had successfully overturned 245,000 tickets in the U.K. and U.S. as of March.
That month, Browder announced he had expanded his chatbot’s capabilities to help refugees in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. claim asylum. The plight of refugees hit home for Browder, whose grandmother fled the Nazis, as Brexit and President Donald Trump’s polices have underscored the need for such a tool.
Whereas he had only needed a couple of months during his summer vacation to set up the parking ticket bot, the immigration bot was more complex and took nearly a year to build. Browder says he consulted with immigration lawyers in all three countries, and the chatbot asks users a few questions and then auto-populates the necessary forms for them.
“The benefit of a chatbot comes from the fact that many people are really terrible at describing their legal problems,” says Browder. “There are lots of ways to do it but only one legal way. The chatbot can translate human input into legally correct input.”
The new version of DoNotPay is on Facebook Messenger. Browder decided to use the social network’s chat interface because of its reach (more than 1 billion users) and accessibility.
Facebook has become one of the go-to places for chatbots, boasting more than 30,000 as of September 2016.
California lawyer Tom Martin, who created LawDroid for Facebook Messenger, points out that Apple hasn’t really rolled out the welcome mat for chatbot apps yet.
“Facebook provides detailed demographic information in terms of who is using [LawDroid],” says Martin, who launched the app in November to help individuals generate California business incorporation documents. “I can then tailor my marketing efforts based on that information.”
The technology isn’t perfect. Some chatbots have become vehicles for scammers. Last July, for instance, Tinder users were swindled by a chatbot phishing for personal information by impersonating potential matches. Others, including Joshua Lenon, lawyer-in-residence at Clio, have argued that chatbots can limit access to justice by telling users that they have no case or recourse.
Nevertheless, Browder and Martin think the sky is the limit. Martin points to Amazon’s Alexa and thinks chatbots with voice capabilities could eventually perform a wide range of legal services. Browder, meanwhile, thinks that chatbots could help facilitate cooperation between the law and other disciplines, particularly medicine.
“Lawyers are confined by their law degrees,” Browder says. “But a chatbot doesn’t have to stop between industries. They can diagnose medical or psychological illnesses and also help users get legal help.”
Law Scribbler Online: Victor Li shares his reporter’s notebook at ABAJournal.com/lawbythenumbers and on Twitter at @LawScribbler. This article appeared in the July 2017 issue of the
Law Scribbler Online: Victor Li shares his reporter’s notebook at ABAJournal.com/lawbythenumbers and on Twitter at @LawScribbler.
This article appeared in the July 2017 issue of theABA Journal with the headline “Talking Tech: Chatbot apps help users communicate their legal needs.”