Legal chatbots: What they are and what they do

In the past, a sticky legal dilemma certainly warranted an immediate call to your trusted lawyer. These days, however, all it takes for a quick legal patch is to open an app on your phone or log on to a certain website in order to avail the services of a legal chatbot.

What is a legal chatbot?

Legal chatbots take off from an emerging field known as computational law. In “Computational Law: The Cop in the Backseat,” researcher Michael Genesereth from the CodeX: The Center for Legal Informatics at Stanford University defines computational law as “that branch of legal informatics concerned with the mechanization of legal analysis.”

Part of the so-called mechanization process is the development of legal chatbots. These are computer programs simulating the client-lawyer communication process using predictive analytics to help find for the “client” an appropriate legal remedy to a legal question without consulting a live and human lawyer.

Legal chatbots undergo several developmental stages. The conceptualization stage envisions the  target demographic and approaches to use, as well as the kind of legal issues that will be asked. In addition, the system infrastructure needs to be developed to support questions from users.


Legal chatbots on the rise


There are a number of reasons why the use of legal chatbots is on the rise.

For one, utilizing legal chatbots does not cost anything. Warranted or not, the legal profession is notorious for the hefty fees usually associated with legal services, so being able to solicit legal advice for free, albeit from a novel platform, comes across as a welcome departure from the usual.

Another draw to the use of legal chatbots is the fact that they are available 24/7. Whether via websites or in the form of apps, legal chatbots can be used anywhere no matter the time of day. So long as there is some Internet service available, the public can access troves of handy legal information that they can use in whatever situation they may find themselves in.

In addition, legal chatbots provide useful information couched in a language that is simple and easy to understand. This is definitely helpful for ordinary folks unaccustomed to legal jargon. It is this simplicity, complemented by a generally intuitive interface, that makes legal chatbots appealing to the public.

With all these benefits taken together, legal chatbots end up fulfilling a social justice function: by serving as effective means of addressing the general public’s need for legal resources, legal chatbots equip people with the legal know-how they would not otherwise be able to have access to.

More poignantly, legal chatbots empower marginalized sectors, too, especially when a particular legal chatbot is designed to address the legal needs of a niche community, such as refugees, battered women, and members of the LGBT community who are subjected to discrimination, among others.


Complete reliance on legal chatbots


On the flip side, the use of legal chatbots presents some disadvantages, too.

Complete reliance on legal chatbots, for instance, subjects legal issues to potential oversimplification that may end up prejudicing the interests of users. Obviously, there are some legal issues that cannot be adequately resolved by simply answering yes or no or by simply selecting an answer from a given set of pre-written responses. In other words, when issues get too complex, relying on legal chatbots may not be the best course of action because while many of their current iterations are able to supply answers to straightforward legal issues, forms, and procedural matters, they nonetheless remain incapable of answering more difficult scenarios, at least for the time being.

Second, while many of the pre-written responses have no doubt been vetted by actual law practitioners, the fact is that users proceed at their own risk. It is important to note that legal chatbots cannot be held accountable should the advice obtained from them turn out to be wrong or not particularly suited to a specific problem.

And finally, there is the potential risk of mismanagement, loss, or theft of private and confidential data. Users often have to supply personal or confidential information in describing their legal problems. All these data, in turn, remain in the legal chatbots’ servers. What if the system holding all these private information gets compromised? What if there is an unauthorized data breach?

In the end, the questions is: will legal chatbots powered by artificial intelligence be able to serve as adequate replacements to real lawyers in the future?

This proposition is not far-fetched, given the progress and advances being made in the field to address the perceived inadequacies of the current crop of legal chatbots. Sooner or later, legal chatbots with more sophisticated and expansive legal knowledge capable of mimicking the inner workings of a competent and conscientious lawyer may become the public’s go-to resource for legal problems.

All told, legal chatbots provide an instructive glimpse into the future of the practice of law.


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