(Courtesy photo)

Forget crime-reporting robots or machine secretaries ; the future may be far more simplistic. Need to document your work time on a particular case? Just say it aloud . Want to find out how many cases your team handled last month? Just ask. Something will hear you and answer back. And chances are, her name will be Alexa.

The promise of Alexa—Amazon’s voice assistant hosted on computers, mobile phones and smart speakers like Amazon Echo—may prove a holy grail for legal: an automated, frictionless and natural way to interact with complex platforms without having to learn many of the nuances of a new platform. Some legal technology companies are integrating their platforms with Alexa to enable voice controlled commands.

But the promise of such functionality doesn’t always play out so well in practice. For all of Alexa’s abilities, the technology behind it is still being developed, and the legal and cybersecurity implications of its use are from far known. But whether an industry-altering tool or a niche novelty, for the near future, Alexa will likely play a growing role in the legal industry.

Bringing Voice to the Workflow

Alexa integrations in legal technology blossomed as many novel products do—on the back of client interest and the promise of new work efficiencies. ThinkSmart, which provides workflow automation solutions for tasks like contract drafting, was motivated to explore such an integration by members of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) group, some of whom were already customers, said Dillon Knowlton, product manager at ThinkSmart.

After conversations with CLOC members, ThinkSmart soon began building a prototype Alexa integration into its workflow automation platform which, in addition to allowing data input and voice search, also includes the ability create workflows based on voice commands. Around the same time, CLOC members also approached knowledge management solution provider Onna, who likewise started developing an Alexa integration that allows users to input data and query databases through voice commands.

Though ThinkSmart and Onna are not ready to release their Alexa integrations publicly, both companies did showcase their work in limited live demos at the May 2017 CLOC Conference in Las Vegas.

Outside the CLOC ecosystem, other legal technology pioneers also were to looking innovate with Alexa to streamline cumbersome manual process in attorneys’ daily lives. Recently launched startup Tell Tali, for example, began when founder Matthew Volm wanted to create a smoother way for his wife, an attorney in Portland, Oregon, to keep track of work time and billing .

Volm described Tell Tali as a voice-powered “productivity assistant” for time tracking, management and analytics. Currently in beta testing with dozens of law firms, the tool is being developed to be device agnostic so it can integrate with various practice management platforms.

Tell Tali, however, isn’t the only company striving to automate time tracking through voice. Thomson Reuters is one of, if not the only, company that has launched a public Alexa integration application. The company’s Workspace Assistant allows the input of time entry and the querying of time statistics via Alexa and connects with the broader Thomson Reuters Workspace and Elite 3E system.

Justin Framer, senior director of ‎product management at Thomson Reuters Elite, noted that the time management integration came out of a larger effort at Thomson Reuters focused on exploring how Alexa could be developed for business and legal industry end users.

“We started with a use case of time entry, because we know that was a flow attorneys were familiar with through other devices,” he said. “It was also something attorneys can do in addition to doing other things, and Alexa is very good for multitasking.”

Not the Only Game in Town

But Amazon’s Alexa isn’t the only game in town. Apple Siri, Google Assistant and Microsoft Cortana offer similar voice assistant technology and opportunities for legal tech developers.

“We are definitely planning to expand platforms,” Volm said of Tell Tali’s future plans. “For us, it’s really about just what the voice [technology] can do instead of about each specific platform.”

Others are eyeing the additional voice tools, but in a more market-driven fashion. “What I think would be a very logical next step, considering enterprises are largely dominating by Windows, would be Cortana,” said Paul Hirner, CEO of ThinkSmart.

There is a reason, however, that Amazon’s Alexa is the first and as of yet only used tool for legal technology developers. “Amazon Services’s voice platform is just the one that is the most advanced, and from a development perspective, it’s in the best shape for us to develop something on right now,” Volm said.

But while Alexa is ahead of the competition, it is still far from perfect. “There are still issues with the overall platform,” Volm said, pointing to Alexa’s inability to recognize different user voices and the accuracy limitations it has with understanding phrases and words. Knowlton added that there also are the “misunderstandings that occur sometimes when many people are speaking” within the vicinity of Alexa.

Legal technology developers, however, are confident that Amazon will fix Alexa’s shortcomings in the months to come. But in the meantime, they are also moving to tackle these problems on their own. Volm, for example, is planning to leverage machine learning capabilities in Tell Tali to allow the platform to “learn” a number of words in a set database.

If Alexa is then having a problem understanding a specific command, “we’ll reference the database and we’ll surface the most relevant result,” Volm said.

ThinkSmart’s Knowlton said the company wants to build on its Alexa integration using AI as well. “We just have to build in the expectation handling to make sure we take a useful action if we get data that doesn’t look correct or that the user somehow signals the data is not correct,” Knowlton said.

Waiting for the Market

While Alexa’s limitations may be addressed with novel technology, the business barriers to voice integrations are far more complicated.

As with any new technology, there are a host of security implications to consider. And it’s not just about how the data Alexa inputs and works with is protected, but more who can access information using Alexa, given that the technology cannot differentiate between different user voices.

“I think customers are really going to be comfortable starting with relatively low risk use cases until the technology is flushed out,” Knowlton said. “You’re certainly not going to give access to anyone to ask Alexa about confidential cases or files.”

There are, however, ways to mitigate the lack of access controls. Farmer noted that the Workspace Assistant Alexa application is secured by a numerical pin “so anybody just can’t start asking it a bunch of questions.” He added that the platform uses a pin because “we wouldn’t necessarily want a user to manually spell out their user name or password; that wouldn’t make much sense.”

Yet even with some level of access protections, there is still apprehension over the potential legal liabilities of using Alexa.

Privacy concerns with the technology were heightened, for example, after officials in Benton County, Arkansas, issued a search warrant for voice data from an Amazon Echo belonging to a homicide suspect—one of the first ever public moves by law enforcement officials in the U.S. to demand such data.

Though Amazon initially resisted complying with the warrant, it eventually dropped its opposition and publically argued that Alexa does not spy on its users , as it only collects necessary data only after being voice activated.

Still, anxiety over Alexa’s privacy and security implications is pushing many developers toward a wait-and-see approach before they fully dive into creating new products.

“What we will be doing is following the adoption of the technology from a working professional stance to determine how well accepted the technology is going to be,” Knowlton said.

But while the future of legal industry Alexa integrations may be on hold for now, there is still cause for some optimism, given the unmistakable pull Alexa, and other voice technologies, have for many in legal.

“The good news is that we have seen an overwhelming response of interest to this technology,” Farmer said.