The bots are coming

In last week’s article, we mentioned the rise of virtual offices and websites that offer legal services. One of those,, has drawn a lot of attention, recently. The website is the brain child of nineteen-year-old Joshua Browder, who refers to it as the world’s first robot lawyer. He created the website after he received more than thirty unfair traffic fines in London in just a few months, and wanted to appeal them. The website is designed to make that process as easy as answering a few questions, either by filling out a form, or in a chatroom. The website then files the appeal on your behalf, for free.

That Browder chose a chatroom solution that uses a chat bot shouldn’t come as a surprise. Indeed, experts have been predicting that the use of chat bots to interact with customers would constitute one of the biggest new technology shifts. After all, chatting apps are extremely popular, and offer users a familiar interface. Chances are you’ve already used a chat room to interact with IT support services or with companies’ customer services. The natural next step was that chat bots would get involved to automate and streamline the process. Tests have shown that the artificial intelligence used in chat bots has sufficiently matured to pass the Turing Test, i.e., the person interacting with the chat bot does not realise he or she is interacting with a chat bot. In the US, e.g., chat bots are already being used successfully in fast food chains to process online orders. Or you can just call an Uber through Facebook Messenger. Chat bots can also get you news headlines, weather forecasts, or traffic information. IT companies like, e.g., already use a chat bot (called slackbot) for their online customer support. Microsoft acknowledged the potential of chat bots when it started working in March on tools that allow you to create your own chat bot on Skype.

With DoNotPay, the first legal chat bot is now a fact, too. When the website started offering Londoners an easy way to appeal unfair traffic fines for free, it did so with huge success: in less than two years’ time, 250 000 appeals were submitted and 160 000 of those were successful. As a result, approximately four million USD worth in parking tickets did not have to be paid. By now, people in New York can use the service as well. Seattle is next, and South Africa may follow as well. And that’s not all. Given its success, the website intends to extend the services it offers. Apart from appealing parking tickets, the website can now also assist you in claiming compensation if your flight was delayed.

In an interview with Fortune Magazine Catherine Bamford, a former lawyer in Leeds who advises law firms and corporate legal departments on automation, underlined how important this evolution is. “Access to justice for the non-wealthy is a serious concern. Legal aid budgets have been slashed in recent years. With helper bots like DoNotPay, some willing lawyers and expert programmers, legal advice could become cheap and accessible to everyone via the Internet. This is a real step in the right direction.”

The DoNotPay website wasn’t Joshua Browder’s first endeavour. The second-year IT student at Stanford, indeed has a nice track record already. As a thirteen-year-old he created an app for ‘Pret-a-manger,’ a sandwich chain, that became so popular that the company adopted it as its official app. He also contacted several human rights organizations offering his services for free. Some, like Freedom House (a human rights watchdog) and International Bridges for Justice accepted his offer.

We are likely to encounter more and more intelligent chat bots in the near future. And they won’t be limited to just support departments or customer services. One startup,, is already working on a virtual personal assistant, and uses the built-in chat bot to interact with people, e.g., to set up appointments, suggesting possible times, etc. It’s probably just a matter of time before law firms start using virtual legal assistants. In fact, IBM already offers a virtual legal research assistant. And that’s just the beginning. We can expect artificial intelligence aspects to be integrated in the user interfaces of legal software, replacing the more traditional wizards. And Law still is a field that deals with a lot of formalities. Robot lawyers that assist people with those, e.g., could be really useful, and could make things more transparent and accessible.

So, should lawyers be worried that legal robots will be taking over their jobs? Not really! After all, with each new technology arise new opportunities for lawyers, too. Take, e.g., liability questions: what if the robot lawyer makes a mistake, or if your virtual legal assistant sends out the wrong information? As long as there are legal conflicts, the need for lawyers will remain. (And that’s a good thing, because otherwise we would be out of job, too).



The changing shape of the legal market

I always keep a close eye on how the legal market evolves. In the last ten years, we have witnessed quite a number of evolutions that have disrupted the traditional legal market. In a presentation at Lexpo 2016, held in March, Chris Bull gave an interesting overview of ten ways in which innovative business models have changed the market. (Chris Bull, An uncharted world: 10 ways in which innovative business models have changed the shape of the legal market forever, presentation at Lexpo 2016. Available on video at Here are the highlights.

  1. Investment

Ten years ago, a law firm typically consisted of partners who co-owned the firm. Now we see law firms that have external investors on board who are not lawyers. These can be insurance companies, accounting and consulting companies or plain capital investment companies.

  1. Corporation

As the correlate of the first evolution, we find more and more law firms in a more traditional commercial corporation model. Where ten years ago, law firms were partnerships, many law firms have adopted a corporate structure of a Limited company. In this corporate structure, law firms often have directors (CFOs, COOs, CIOs, etc.) who are not lawyers.

  1. Outsourcing

Law firms tend to focus more on specializing in certain fields than before. As a result, anything that is not part of their core business is subcontracted to third parties.

  1. Insourcing

Another way in which the legal market has been disrupted is by an increase in the insourcing done by the customers of the law firms. Bigger corporations tend to have bigger legal departments and do more in-house than before.

  1. Agile Firms

In the last ten years, we have also witnessed the emergence of ‘agile firms’. Four aspects set an agile firm apart. A) Role: ‘role’ has to do with who plays what part/role in the company. Apart from the partners, agile firms tend to use more paralegals, and temps, and have a larger diversity in who works full time or part time, etc. B) Place: where does the firm operate from? These days, many firms operate in a multi-site set-up. At the same time, people spend less time in the physical office and work more from home. There even are ‘shared service centres’ for lawyers. Traditionally, law firms were located in the city. Now they may just have an office there, where the main site of operation has moved to the outskirts of the city because it’s cheaper. C) Time: more and more firms are using flexible hours. Some companies have moved to a system where work hours are counted on an annual basis instead of per week or per month. D) Source: where do you find your people? Recruitment is no longer a matter of just prospecting at law schools.

  1. Start-ups

Over the last ten years, we have seen a tendency where bigger firms merge. In spite of that, the number of law firms remains more or less the same. As big firms merge, people also leave to set up their own start-ups. These start-ups typically operate differently.

  1. Legal Tech

Legal tech has dramatically changed over the last ten years. New on the scene are online offices, which can take one of two forms. On the one hand, there is the ‘Remote Office’. Here, lawyers are still involved and do the actual work. They don’t necessarily ever meet the customer in person but operate through a website front. On the other hand, there are offices that are entirely virtual: the AI office. Here no lawyer is involved. Everything is done through and by the website, using an Artificial Intelligence engine.

  1. Fixed Price

The traditional law firm worked with timesheets and billable hours. But because of market demands, more and more firms offer to work for fixed prices. That way the customer knows exactly in advance how much what will cost.

  1. Group Structure

Traditionally, law firms were single legal entities. Now we also see group structures that can be national or international. There may even be a holding company.

  1. Collaboration

Over the last years, there also has been a sharp increase in collaboration between law firms. These can take the form of collaboration networks, franchises, membership groups, purchasing groups, joint ventures, and/or firms using a common brand name.

All of the aforementioned changes have a dramatic impact on how the firm operates. But for CICERO LawPack 10, this is not a problem. It is designed to be able to handle things like multi-site set-ups, corporate accounting, etc.

Apache mod_rewrite doesn’t seem to work in Windows

I had this strange phenomenon that mod_rewrite instructions in the .htaccess file worked online on my ISPs server, but not on my local Windows machine that also has an Apache server running on it.

I kept getting 404 errors: page not found.

Which is a bit annoying: I’ve got drupal, joomla and other software running on my local server, but none of them could use ‘clean URLs,’ which is what I want to use.

It turns out that the default configuration of Apache on windows is to NOT allow .htaccess to be used.

So the problem wasn’t that the mod_rewrite didn’t work. The real problem was that the .htaccess file was just ignored.

The best solution for that is to modify your httpd.conf file. (Stop the Apache service before you modify it. Start it again when completed).

If you’ve installed, e.g, drupal in a directory “c:\websites\drupal” and you want to use mod_rewrite for clean URLs, then you’d have to add the following lines to the httpd.conf file:

<Directory “C:/websites/drupal/”>
AllowOverride All
Order allow,deny
Allow from all

You have to do this for each directory / folder you want to use .htaccess in.

The – far less secure- alternative is to change the default settings of your Apache and by default allow .htaccess to be used.