The current state of voice technology and law practice

3 min read

This week, I’m in Washington DC speaking at ILTACON about the current and future state of voice technology and legal practice, which got me thinking—what exactly is the current state of voice technology, like Amazon Alexa, as it relates to legal? And how long will this “current state” exist, given the rapid development of voice platforms over the last year?

With these questions in mind (and the fact that I had a presentation to prepare for 🤷‍♂️), I kept reflecting on my own journey in co-founding Tali and being one of the first companies focused on bringing voice technology into the business world. I have strong opinions on voice technology in general, but especially when it comes to its application in the legal field.

The voice revolution is here

And it’s here to stay. The internet may have been the first revolution, and mobile the second, but voice is next.

According to estimates by Canalys, there will be 100 million smart speaker devices in circulation by the end of 2018, a growth of nearly 250% in just one year.

These devices are not just being used in the homes of consumers either—Amazon has their Alexa for Business initiative, and companies like Tali (voice-driven timekeeping), tact.ai (AI sales assistant), and Saykara (voice-driven medical scribe) are building voice-driven technology solutions for businesses of all sizes. In my opinion, there is no question that voice is going to fundamentally change the way that we do business going forward.

To deliver value, start with the problem… not with voice

This may seem obvious, but any technology solution meant to serve lawyers must be developed first with the problem in mind, not with voice. You can’t say “I’m going to build Alexa for Law” and then spin out a voice solution that actually solves real problems for lawyers. Instead, you need to start by identifying a problem you see that isn’t being adequately solved by existing solutions. Then you can start to explore whether voice offers unique opportunities to solve that problem.

For example, the idea for Tali all started with a problem I saw my wife was having as an attorney. She would write all of her time on stickies during the week, then spend hours manually entering them into her billing system.

The problem was that the manual data entry required by her system was such an interruption to her day that she had hacked together her own solution, but it cost her lots of time and possibly lost billable hours.

Hearing that problem, but seeing how easy it was to interact with our Alexa smart speakers at home, I randomly suggested to her one night “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if you could just tell Alexa to log your billable time for you?” We started with the problem, which led us to voice as a solution.

Innovation in voice is different

Building any new software is an incredibly challenging task, but building and innovating around voice technology, at times, seems impossible. It’s brand new, with no playbook to reference, which means you have to figure it out as you go.

When it comes to interacting with software on a screen, there are a lot of things as users (and software developers) that we take for granted—things like buttons, drop-down menus, and search bars. All of these things help define the intent of a user, and most of the burden is placed on the user to find what they want. Voice is different. With voice, this burden is placed on the technology instead of the user.

For example, take something like a time-entry form. To be completed, the lawyer needs to go to their computer, pull up their billing system, click a button that says “Add new time entry” and then use their keyboard to fill out a bunch of fields.

With a voice-driven timekeeping solution like Tali, that entire burden is placed on the technology. If a lawyer needs to log some time, all they have to say is “Alexa, open Tali” and Tali will walk them through everything that’s needed.

So how do you build a voice solution that solves real problems for attorneys? At Tali, we did something called “Wizard of Oz” testing, where the humans designing Tali played timekeeping assistant for a day. This is just what it sounds like: we sat in attorneys’ offices and said “Hey, I’m Tali, your timekeeping assistant for the day. Just tell me to log your time and I’ll get the job done! Oh, and please pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” We learned a ton by doing this, which ultimately informed how we designed and built the Tali product you see today.

The voice platforms are early

Remember when the iPhone was first introduced? It was slow, had no camera, no apps, and “serious users” complained about not being able to use a physical keyboard. Plenty of people were excited about the new technology, but not everyone saw just how it would change the world.

That’s where I believe we currently are with voice.

The platforms are early—especially when it comes to business—but they’re still highly capable of delivering real business value to users when we focus on solving users’ problems.

And, thanks to the mobile revolution, we have a sense of the direction in which we are going, allowing us to move very quickly, rapidly advancing to meet the needs of businesses and enterprises across the globe. For example, Amazon has Alexa for Business, with Alexa capable of speaking six languages (at the time of writing), and Google Assistant planning to support over 30 languages by the end of 2018.

It shouldn’t surprise you that I’m incredibly bullish on voice and what it can do to propel the legal profession forward. I don’t envision a world where AI voice assistants have replaced lawyers and skilled humans, but I do believe there are great opportunities to make life easier for folks who work in law, and voice applications will become increasingly useful in the legal field with time. For now, I see opportunity for voice solutions aimed at solving administrative pieces of an attorney’s workflow. I believe that most lawyers carry too much burden for administrative tasks, or “administrivia” as we call it at Tali. This burden should instead be placed on technology, so that lawyers can do more of what they ultimately went to law school to do: practice law.