Internet Newsletter for Lawyers
January/February 2006, by Delia Venables

Virtual Lawyers - how far can they go?
By Alex Heshmaty

The past ten years have seen the rise of the internet from an interesting communication tool used by a technically-minded minority, to a basic necessity of everyday life. Just as Hoover wanted “a chicken in every pot” so Blair wants to bring “broadband technology to every home.” As the net has grown, many of the companies belonging to traditional industries have not only developed an online arm but have even formed solely online entities. Many people now do all their banking online, have forsaken newspapers for news blogs, buy their insurance and book their holidays by clicking a mouse. So, how far have lawyers gone to embrace the online revolution, and how much further can they, or indeed should they, go?

What law firms (and others) are doing

Many law firms have a website but this is often simply a basic part of its marketing material, having little useful function other than advertising the firm and providing contact details. However, some of these sites contain legal information which can give a potential client a basic understanding of their rights. Some go further to provide more comprehensive information or other services which can also be of use to clients as well as lawyers. Allen and Overy manage various online legal services (www.allenovery.com/asp/ProductsServices.asp) which include automatic document drafting, a virtual deal room for individual transactions and a virtual caseroom for dispute resolution. Simmons and Simmons provides the award-winning Elexica site (www.elexica.com) offering an email current awareness service, legal updates, weekly EU diary, training modules, legal checklists, a legal discussions forum and an extensive library of categorised web links. But these are essentially all information, communication or administration management services rather than advisory services. Lawyers possess the skills to apply various bits of information to a specific case but clients will probably find the information less useful, unless they have a lot of time, perseverance, will and competence to run their own legal affairs.

But it's not only the law firms that provide online legal services. One of the trailblazers in online legal publishing is Emplaw (www.emplaw.co.uk) which has been providing British employment law information on the internet since 1997. As well as being an excellent resource for legal professionals, it is also used by employers and employees in researching their legal rights and responsibilities. Amongst its offerings are thousands of pages of information with commentary, categorised links to relevant source and other material available on the Internet, full text statutes, summaries of employment law cases and regular email newsletters.

Rather than providing information, Law Express (www.lawexpress.co.uk) has based its business on a legal advice helpline staffed by in-house solicitors. This helpline can either be used for a one-off enquiry (flat fee of £39 + VAT) or as part of an annual subscription. Lawpack (www.lawpack.co.uk) takes a further step towards enabling people to run their own legal affairs by providing legal “DIY Kits” - although these are are sometimes put together by solicitors.

Some kits allow would-be clients to prepare their own wills or manage their divorce without employing the services of a solicitor. Even Tesco is getting in on the act with www.tescolegalstore.com, providing information and DIY kits so you can buy your legal services with your groceries! Actually behemoths such as Tesco could actually become major players in the legal field following the Clementi review which formed the basis of government proposals that seem to encourage the proliferation of legal services which are not directly provided by law firms. A smaller example at present is the new Claims Direct (www.claimsdirect.com) which essentially acts as a reception call centre, referring clients to a law firm. In this case, that law firm is Russell Jones and Walker which actually owns Claims Direct. It has succeeded in completely splitting its marketing activities from its other functions.

What role will lawyers play?

Several years ago, in “The Future of Law,” Richard Susskind predicted that the role of lawyers will gradually change from that of reactive adviser to one of proactive “information engineer.” Instead of acting on behalf of the client and holding their hand through the legal process, they will ensure that the client has access to the best possible information which will enable them to manage their own legal affairs to a greater extent than is presently the case. Clearly some legal services, such as the Tesco offering, are aiming to empower the general public with relevant knowledge to execute certain legal processes which would otherwise be undertaken by solicitors.

So, with the rise of the phenomenon of the “street journalist” will the “lay lawyer” gradually become a more prevalent part of our future society? Surely providing individuals with clear up-to-date legal information and thus educating and empowering the general public is a natural and beneficial consequence of the growth of the information age. But just as NHS Direct has improved access to health information without reducing the need or demand for doctors, there will probably be little correlation between the amount of legal information freely available and the requirement for lawyers. If relevant information is readily available, some legal processes can of course be executed by the general public, such as writing a basic will. But more complex legal affairs will almost certainly always require the skills of a legal professional with the knowledge of the various possible angles and permutations, the ability to negotiate and deal efficiently with different people and organisations and to effectively represent a client in court. Often a client simply wants to be able to explain their position to their lawyer and let them administer advice, deal with any necessary procedures and generally take care of their problem. But could the role of “legal advisor” be undertaken, at least to some extent, by a clever computer program?

Can legal advice be automated?

Project Eagle (see www.projecteagle.org.uk) was a scheme initiated by the Legal Services Commission, which aimed to develop a computer system which could help Citizens Advice Bureaux advisers to deal with employment law issues. The idea was to use advanced search engine software in conjunction with a complex rulebase reasoning system which would be able to trawl through masses of legislation and case law. This would ultimately enable the system to deliver accurate legal advice in response to various employment law questions. Unfortunately Project Eagle ran out of funding this year, but it is an interesting indication as to what may be possible in the future.

So, online legal services are certainly becoming more widespread but none have actually become a substitute for asking a solicitor for legal advice. Much of the administration work in law firms has already been automated using various IT packages such as case management software or document automation programs. But will it every be possible to automate the advisory work of solicitors? Project Eagle attempted to build a program able to administer legal advice but perhaps if this kind of project can be taken further we will begin to delve into the world of artificial intelligence. It is one thing to produce a complex piece of search engine software which can provide answers to given questions, but another to create a program which can actually hold a conversation, as a lawyer would with their client.

ALICE (www.alicebot.org) stands for Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity. It is essentially a “chatbot,” a piece of software which “talks” to a user. The method of “teaching” this bot, inputting knowledge, uses a language called AIML (Artificial Intelligence Mark-up Language) which is a form of XML. However, it can also be “taught” using natural language. It learns not only how to respond to questions but when to ask its own questions and it can retain data in relation to a certain user. It can actually hold a conversation, albeit in text, and the more in is “taught” the more intelligent its conversations become. But no matter how intelligent a chatbot, would it ever be commercially viable or indeed ethical to allow such a piece of software to advise clients on legal matters? This may well depend largely on risk - the risk that the software might “fail” to administer good advice, either due to a lack of “knowledge” or because the software develops a fault such as a virus. Perhaps more importantly, would a client ever want to receive legal advice from a computer program? If the cost is lower and the advice is of a similar calibre, why not?

How far can it go?

If legal services can be automated to a greater degree then this will give the public easier and cheaper access, and could streamline many processes. If people are encouraged to take greater responsibility for their own legal affairs this will hopefully engender a better educated and more politically aware society. However, there are certain limitations to automating legal services. Although straightforward processes may be carried out by the general public, more complex legal situations involving court appearances and voluminous correspondence will probably always require the skills of a legal professional. In highly emotive cases such as may often by found in the realm of criminal law, a lawyer will usually be required to conduct the case from a position of professional perspective and cool-headedness. Also, many people will always want to have the opportunity of simply talking to their lawyer face to face, as one thing you can never automate or substitute is the human touch.

So, even when the technology arrives to create “lawyerbots” which can give sound legal advice to clients, it may yet take a paradigm shift in cultural thinking to make the Virtual Lawyer a reality. Nevertheless, many legal services are gradually migrating to the internet, becoming more sophisticated and “intelligent” so perhaps it is only a matter of time before they also become “artificial” ... ?

Alex Heshmaty is a law graduate and freelance web designer with a keen interest in the field of Legal IT, having previously worked as Systems Manager for DiscLaw Publishing Ltd.
email: alexheshmaty@gmail.com.

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