5 Questions on Digital Assistants

Too often, lawyers see technology as something inflicted upon them or a something that can make their work even harder to do than it already is: deleting a space in a Word document might reformat several pages, projectors might suddenly not project, a content management system might suddenly go offline.

However, there are a growing class of apps and devices called “digital assistants” that are designed to help users, which attorneys feel a little friendlier towards—or perhaps don’t even realize they partake in. Siri, Google Now, and Cortana are but a few examples. We fly planes on auto-pilot, new cars are increasingly full of driver assistance software, and smartphones and wearables aim to guide us in many ways.

We asked the LTRC Board, and other lawyers and legal professionals, five questions about digital assistants. Watch for more roundtables on legal technology issues, and feel free to offer your own suggestion for a future topic in the comments section.

Our Panelists

In this month’s Law Technology Today Roundtable, seven members of the LTRC Board—Chad Burton (CB), Steven Embry (SE), Natalie Kelly (NK), Dennis Kennedy (DK), Sofia Lingos (SL), Nerino Petro (NP) and Mark Rosch (MR)—answer five questions about digital assistants. As usual, the discussion is practical, wide-ranging, and thought-provoking.

What does “digital assistant” mean to you?

SE: While I suppose the term Digital Assistant (DA) could refer to whole range of apps and software that could be directed to do something or perform some task, I tend to think of DAs at least right now primarily as voice assisted tools that enable keyboards to be by-passed and replaced by voice directives. Thus, anything that a voice could direct and control and which was formerly accomplished by use of a keyboard could potentially be done by a DA.

NK: A digital assistant, to me, is an automated execution response macro system built on computerized intelligence models.

NP: For me, digital assistants are an offshoot of speech recognition technology coupled with intelligent agents. They are designed to help us by providing information that is readily available from online resources or on our devices.

SL: We’ve come quite a way from “Ask Jeeves,” but it wasn’t that long ago that we needed a real person on the other end of our inquiry to perform a task or answer our question. Digital assistants are technological tools capable of replicating tasks previously performed by their traditional people counterparts. This may include word processing, phone services, mailings, smart workflow charts, calendars, and any number of automated tasks that can be completed at the sound of our voice or the touch of a button. “Meet the Jetsons!”

CB: Robots are taking our jobs! Kidding; I love this concept. Digital assistants are a great entrée to the Artificial Intelligence world for the more-average person.

MR: I think the term “digital assistant” is too narrowly-defined when it’s applied only to tools like Siri, Cortana, or Echo. I think the term should be applied more broadly to any tool that helps automate or simplify any task that might take longer or entail more steps (by the user) when accomplished without the benefit of the digital assistant. Because of this, I think that software like Dragon NaturallySpeaking would also qualify as a digital assistant. I also think that any software or service that automates what had previously been tedious multi-step processes or ministerial tasks would also qualify as digital assistants. If you’re old like me, the term “digital assistant” makes me think of a personal digital assistant like a Palm Pilot, Pocket PC, Treo, or Apple Newton (remember those?).

DK: I also like to place the emphasis on “assistant.” Does a device or app help you do something better in practical and productive way. The voice apps are the ones that get our attention, but if you take a look around, digital assistants are appearing in cars, homes and many other places.

What digital assistants have you used and what area of your practice, or of the law, has benefited the most (or could benefit) from them?

NK: I have used Siri most often, and typically for basic informational queries and extended assistance with directions and other convenience applications.

CB: I use Siri every day and Google Now from time to time. I use Siri to enhance my overall productivity whether I am on the go or in my office. She/it helps keep me organized with reminders, capturing notes, finding apps, calling people, and notifying me of new information (such as emails on the go).

SL:  I (suffer) benefit from the relentless connectivity that came with my iWatch (a fourth anniversary present—my husband knows me well). I represent clients who expect and appreciate immediate responses to their always emergent questions and I am able to review their inquiry with the flick of my wrist. More valuable I have found the use of dictation tools for general word processing from drafting documents to sending e-mails: “Siri send an e-mail to Dennis and attach my response to this month’s roundtable article.”

DK: Siri, Google Now, and the Amazon Echo. Next up on my tech to-do list is doing a lot of experimenting with Siri on my Apple Watch. I’m a big fan of the Amazon Echo and it’s now my preferred way to get weather forecasts. It’s interesting how small improvements in digital assistants can make such a pleasant difference.

SE: I have primarily used Siri and voice dictation features (which by the way, works remarkably well on my iPhone). I am also just beginning to use Cortana with my Surface Pro and Windows 10 and I think it also has a lot of potential. So far, I use DAs for short communications, notes and recording of thoughts and remainders. I am starting to use DAs for more tasks such as scheduling and longer emails. I am also starting to use the “Hey Siri” feature which I initially thought was sort of gimmicky. However, I have found that this feature works particularly well in the car and even in the office for communications or when I need a quick piece of information. Siri can also now respond to follow up questions without requiring the speaker to start all over again so it’s much more conversational, which in turn makes it more user friendly. So, bottom line is that I am using Siri more and more.

NP: I’ve used Siri, Google Now, and Cortana. Google Now is the one that I use the most since I have an Android based smartphone. I’ve used it most for information such as finding an address, phone number, or online searches. I’ve tried Cortana on a Windows laptop but I’m not yet sure of the effectiveness on this type of device since I am usually already running Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

MR: I’ve used Siri and Google Now/Google Voice Search occasionally, and demoed Cortana, Echo, and Jasper (a Linux-based digital assistant for the Raspberry Pi). I’ve used them primarily for rudimentary information-type searches. When I’ve demoed various digital assistants, I’ve found that their speech recognition was still not accurate enough to perform the more targeted sophisticated-type searches I most-often run.

Where in your practice, or in the legal profession, are digital assistants being underutilized?

MR: Using the broader definition for digital assistants I suggested in my answer to the previous question, I think automation/document assembly could help streamline client intake, document creation, and even some pre-trial production like interrogatories.

NP: I think that lawyers can make better use of digital assistants to conduct searches rather than using the on screen keyboards of their device. The reality is that we can talk faster than we can type, so using the voice function is more efficient (when it won’t cause disruption to others around us).

CB: I cannot wait for the day it is publicly acceptable to just talk to my iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch—because I would never type again. I would just talk to my devices. Actually, I will probably start doing it anyways. Screw it if people think I am weird.

SE: We really don’t use or even have this feature in our workplace and my impression that very few of our lawyers use digital assistants at all. Part of the problem was that Siri as well as other DAs were over promised and failed to deliver on any sort of practical basis. So this scared a lot of people and lawyers away. Part of this underutilization is also due to the fact that DAs are primarily thought of for use on mobile devices like phones or, to a lesser extent, tablets. Its use has not yet spread generally to laptops or desktops as far as I can tell. And finally, Microsoft and Microsoft-based devices are still standard issue in most law offices. Until Cortana, MS really didn’t have a DA tool that was well recognized or perhaps capable of widespread use and adoption. But now, with Windows 10, Cortana can be used with laptops and desk tops which will no doubt increase usage.

SL: I think all lawyers could benefit from learning how to utilize dictation tools (and not the ones we send out and receive the next day). I believe using a digital assistant for calendaring both in scheduling and reminders can be incredibly valuable. Many attorneys already own these tools like Siri on your iPhone or can get something like Google Now for free. Give it a try.

DK: There are many ways lawyers could make better use of these tools, but we are in an early adoption phase. Lawyers tend to ask too much about whether a tech tool will do “legal” things. Digital assistants probably could help most in everyday activities that support our legal work, as others have mentioned. If I had to pick one major area of underutilization, it would have to be the use of voice for simple data entry, such as calendaring, to-dos, and the like.

NK: In mobile practice settings, many lawyers and legal staff are missing opportunities by not utilizing digital assistants for basic recording and information-seeking tasks. Getting quick answers or enhancing workflows with this type of efficiency focus can make digital assistants more beneficial in legal settings.

What practical benefits of digital assistants should lawyers be watching out for?

SE: Interestingly, DAs may become particularly helpful to lawyers who formerly relied on actual administrative assistants to prepare documents that the attorney dictated or for those of us whose typing skills are poor. These lawyers, (I fall in the latter category, by the way) often get bogged down by having to use keyboards, so DAs particularly in combination with automation tools have the potential to be big time savers. In many respects, they already are. In preparing my comments to this blog, for example, I used a keyboard but I would have saved a lot of time had I used a DA and voice dictation instead. As DAs become more mainstream, I could also see their use becoming a client expectation either directly or just in the natural course of things via pressure to reduce costs and fees: for us outside lawyers I suspect that clients will come to demand proficiency with DAs as a cost saving tool. And as technology improves, the range of tasks a DA could perform will increase exponentially. I can easily see in the near future a DA being used by a lawyer to not only draft documents but to easily edit, format and send/file them and even to do research. But, as with many increasingly functional and used technology tools, we cannot forget the return burn: DAs will ultimately displace support staff. So while they will reduce expenses, they may also put people out of work who can least afford to be displaced.

MR: Any service, device, or software that outsources or automates time-consuming, administrative-type tasks has the potential to free up a lawyer’s own time for more interesting, creative, or profitable activities.

DK: Drastically reducing repetitive tasks that should be automated and getting answers to simple common questions (“What time is it in Mumbai?”). What’s been interesting to me, especially with the Amazon Echo, is that understanding the devices limitations has opened up ways for me to take advantage of what it does really well.

NK: Determining directions, getting quick answers, and commanding execution of a device’s functions are starting points for digital assistance.

NP: As the amount and type of information increases as well as the sophistication of the digital assistant, lawyers need to continue to experiment with their capabilities. They already work well for checking calendars and appointments, finding phone numbers and other contact information and locations and as their capabilities increase, look for integration with legal specific resources and websites and the Courts.

CB: Digital assistants put information at your fingertips perhaps quicker than typing, especially when searching for that one app in some folder on screen 6 of your iPhone. The more efficient you are, the better you are serving your clients.

SL: Digital assistants have the potential to become our right hand non-gender specific non-person. I have preordered Jibo, the world’s first home social robot and hope it lives up to my anticipated excitement. Anytime we can eliminate the overhead of traditional staffing we can increase the bottom line.

Should lawyers be afraid of or encouraged by digital assistants?

MR: Lawyers should only be afraid of digital assistants if they’re relying on the answers provided by the voice-recognition-type assistants as absolutely correct. Or worse…if their clients are. (Pro tip: Don’t ask Siri “Where can I hide a body?”) Lawyers should be encouraged by the potential advancements hinted at by the current crop of available digital assistants.

DK: I always seem to be the most positive person about technology in any room. And I’m definitely bullish on digital assistants, but you have to realize that you are making a bargain with your personal data and understand the tradeoff you make in revealing data—especially location data—to get productivity and other benefits. I have more reservations about location data than many people I know, so I’m willing to give up some potential benefits rather than open up that data. Also, this trend is happening all around us. New cars, even if they are driverless yet, have become digital driving assistants—from braking to lane-changing sensors to parallel parking and much more.

SL: Encouraged. Digital assistants can revolutionize the delivery of legal services by cutting our largest cost for overhead – labor. There has been apprehension expressed over voice-to-text programs such as Siri sharing data with third parties which carries privacy issues. Additional concern come from the accuracy of statements transcribed. A reasonable fear would be falling behind by ignoring the value of technology.

SE: There is no reason to necessarily be afraid of DAs (although some may be reluctant to learn and embrace the technology). From a personal perspective, I see DAs becoming significant time savers for those who are willing to invest the time to learn and use them. And from a management perspective, DAs have the potential to reduce costs. As with any tool like this, some of us will be afraid that DAs and the accompanying client expectations and demands will disrupt old ways of doing things. But increased use of DAs in inevitable so I hope that as a legal profession we will encourage people to adopt and use it, on the one hand, and look at ways to deal with the disruption at the support staff level, on the other.

NK: Basic use of digital assistants should not be feared, but used with caution and patience to ensure accuracy and improved performance over time.

NP: The thing to remember about Digital Assistants is that they are sharing the information you input by voice with their parent company. This is truly an “ET phone home” situation as our portable devices do not have the capability to run these tools without a lot more processing power. So the request is actually sent back to the servers of say Google where the real work is being done. But this is really no different than using an Internet search engine like Microsoft Bing or Google. If you do not want Google or Apple to collect information on your searches, then not only should you not use a Digital Assistant but you should also not use Internet Search engines. The reality is that true privacy is becoming a thing of legend; today what we have is levels of privacy subject to safeguards created by companies that we have no option but to trust will do the right thing. That is a bit scary, but is the reality we now live in. Overall though, I think that lawyers should consider how Digital Assistants can help them be more effective and efficient.

CB: Encouraged! Lawyers are a tough breed for other people to get along with, sometimes. At least Siri won’t judge you. Maybe. No, she is judging you too. Never mind.

The goals of the monthly LTT Roundtable series are to shine some light on technologies that might be useful to legal professionals and to start conversations and discussions about these technologies. We welcome your comments and your suggestions for future LTT Roundtable topics.

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