Alexa, please hire me a lawyer.
Yes, I realize that asking an AI-assistant to find a lawyer sounds far-fetched — like something out of a bad sci-fi movie. But Marketing in the Age of Alexa , a thoughtful, must-read article by Niraj Dawar in this month’s issue of the Harvard Business Review will persuade you otherwise. Dewar describes how consumers will come to rely on AI-assistants not just to carry out instructions like purchasing laundry detergent or scheduling a dog-walker, but also to anticipate their needs. Consider this example from Dewar’s article on how a bot named “Eve” might assist a user:
In addition to managing her shopping and travel, the bot [named Eve] tracked her [user Lori’s] spending and kept her costs down. Each quarter, for example, Eve checked all the telecommunications plans on the market and compared them against Lori’s projected data usage. Her current plan gave her the best price for her mostly evening and weekend usage, but with her brother’s 40th birthday approaching, Eve had anticipated a lot of data traffic among Lori’s friends and family and found a deal from an upstart firm that would save her money. That offer was instantly matched by Lori’s current provider, a company that had paid to be featured on Eve and to have the right to meet competitors’ prices. Lori relied on Eve for similar help with buying insurance, banking, and investment products, too. Sometimes she had to instruct her bot about her criteria and the trade-offs she was willing to make (for example, to forgo higher returns for a greener investment portfolio),
Here’s at least two ways that a sophisticated bot like Eve might help consumers find legal services:
- Instead of spending hours searching for a lawyer on line, consumers in need of assistance for a divorce, incorporation, will preparation or other legal needs could ask the bot to research and identify lawyers. Consumers could include criteria that they consider important – such as cost, 5-star reviews, success in similar cases or online availability – and the bot could return the results.
- Many consumers, myself included often fail to update legal documents even after a life-changing event like death or divorce because it’s too complicated. It’s such a hassle to call around to lawyers willing to undertake a cost-effective document audit and make recommendations for a price-certain. But if I could simply instruct an AI-assistant to find an attorney who would provide this service and obtain a report and recommendations for a fee of a few hundred dollars, I would gladly avail myself of this kind of service.
Of course, there’s just one small obstacle: most lawyers don’t make prices available online or offer flat-fee options that a bot could readily compare against other offerings. Many lawyers refuse to engage on platforms that makes it easy for clients to provide ratings or reviews, thus depriving a bot of another source of information. And few lawyers provide preventative offerings like document audits that consumers could use on an ongoing basis. Instead, today’s lawyers are encouraged to focus marketing dollars on networking in bar associations, providing educational materials at their site and spending money on SEO and online advertising. For the time, these approaches make sense. But we live in an age where marketing changes so quickly that lawyers always need to be prepared for where the puck is headed. And as the Dewar’s article shows, we are heading into an age where bots will at a minimum, act as gatekeepers for consumer decisions if not make those decisions on their behalf. Lawyers need to be thinking about how to present their offerings to make them accessible and understandable to a robot-assistant.
Having a bot make a decision for a consumer doesn’t minimize the importance of inter-personal relations or the human touch. To the contrary, the importance of these characteristics is enhanced, because a consumer can instruct a bot to seek out lawyers with high reviews for empathy or being accessible. Moreover, a consumer could still seek personal referrals, but then ask the bot to measure the recommendations against other lawyers that the bot locates online.
Using an AI assistant as intermediary may also change the rules of legal advertising. If a lawyer wishes to pay for heightened placement or sponsorship on a bot, the placement would likely have to disclose that it constitutes legal advertising. At the same time, with a bot acting as an intermediary, rules on direct solicitation might change as well. Consider a situation where a fatal accident occurs in Texas. Currently, it’s verboten for lawyers to directly contact the victims in person and in many instances, by email or text. But what if lawyers were to target similar ads and solicitations at bots located in that region? The bots serve as an intermediary between the lawyer and client, thus reducing the kind of undue pressure to hire that ethics rules are designed to avoid.
But bots can also cure the access to justice problem. Many consumers don’t seek out legal assistance because they’re not aware that they have a problem or assume that they can’t afford a lawyer or are too intimidated to contact a lawyer who may be entirely inappropriate for their needs. Instead, consumers can describe an issue to a bot and ask the bot to evaluate whether a lawyer is needed, and if there’s one available in the consumer’s price range.
As Dewar points out in his article, many bots are already capable of carrying out many of the individual tasks described – though there may be need for additional integration and refinement for more sophisticated matters. But there’s no doubt in my mind that AI-enabled bots will change the way that consumers find and hire lawyers. How exciting is that?