Credit: Alistair Forrester Shankie

 

It’s not often that you’d consider the old school, white-wigged English barristers and chatbot technology in the same sentence, but Stephen Ward, a career barristers’ clerk and founder of clerk-oriented technology company Clerksroom, took his interest in developing technology and turned it back on his own job.

Billy Bot is a chatbot that can interface with members of the public about some of the same preliminary legal questions that barristers’ clerks often handle. “This really is a natural development from building case management systems and online payment portals. We’re looking at new ways to automate old-fashioned practices,” he said.

Here’s a look at the new technology:

Who it serves: Ward designed Billy Bot to help barristers’ clerks deal with the onslaught of questions they receive from the public with simple legal questions, which often eat up a lot of time without ever becoming a real lead. “We don’t want thousands and thousands of inquiries from people who basically want free legal advice. We want to find every available way to help a client before they get to a lawyer. If they get through all that triage and they still need a lawyer, we’re happy to help them,” he explained.

What it does: At present, Billy Bot is still a pilot project, though it can currently answer questions on LinkedIn. Regardless, Ward has high hopes for the project. Billy Bot can currently refer users to appropriate legal resources and pull information from the 350 barristers’ offices, and Ward intends to give it access to the other systems he runs through Clerksroom, including scheduling and case management capabilities. If Billy Bot can create a viable lead for barristers, it takes a 20 percent cut from spend.

“It’s a little bit theoretical at this point, but the theory is that Billy can triage the inquiry, take the inquiry, check availability, quote fees, do a conflict check, put the case in the diary,” Ward said. For the time being, however, Billy Bot is still in testing, which Ward predicts will continue “for some time.”

On naming a chatbot “Billy”: Billy Bot got both its name and its demeanor from Billy Lamb, the brassy barristers’ clerk on the Masterpiece Classic show Silk. “We’re trying to make it more fun,” Ward said, adding that they’ve tried to infuse Billy’s humor into the bot.

Billy Bot describes himself as “a bit of a cheeky chappie” with “a life outside the server farm” on his LinkedIn page, a personality edge that Ward and other developers have tried to infuse him with. Ward was careful to consult with industry leaders before giving Billy a sense of humor. “They’ve all said the more you can get it humanized with a bit of humor and character as well, that’s what we have to do, but it has to be at appropriate times.” Cracking jokes when consulting on a criminal matter, for example, would likely not be an appropriate time.

Chatbots for lawyers: While Billy Bot is consumer facing, Ward said it falls into a different category as other legal information chatbots like DoNotPay and VisaBot . Billy Bot doesn’t itself provide any legal service itself, but rather connects users with either appropriate information or a scheduled appointment with a barrister’s office. “What we hope we will provide is faster, more straightforward access to justice in what we think is a more appropriate way,” Ward said.

Expanding the interface: Billy Bot will integrate primarily into commercial websites that people with legal needs might consult for legal information or support. “In effect, we’ll have an in-house member of staff implanted in their website who will pop up at the appropriate time,” Ward explained, which would allow users to chat with the bot about more specific legal questions. Ward is hoping to expand out to other chat platforms like Facebook Messenger, but wants to shore up Billy’s functionality first.

“We live and die by the service we provide at the end of the day. We don’t want to go mad and put Billy out everywhere at once, we want to make sure the numbers are coming in as expected,” he said. But because chatbots are based on decision tree infrastructure, they can be fairly easily tailored to other platforms. “The idea is that you can deploy Billy anywhere. Our imagination is the only thing that’s limiting it,” he added.