When Big Law attorneys want to check a billing rate, book a conference room, or find out which partners have a relationship with a certain client, they might ask their administrative staff, or run a search of the firm’s internal directory.

But at Fenwick & West, there’s another option. Lawyers can ask “Fenni,” a digital assistant built by the firm’s in-house tech lab.

Common questions put to Fenni are: What is my billing rate? Who are our contacts with our client? Can you book me two rooms at the law firm’s Mountain View campus for Thursday? When users ask a question with a confidential answer, Fenni emails them the response.

“It’s the full gamut from mundane and time consuming tasks to very specific client focused questions about matters and who has relationships,” said Mark Gerow, director of application development and business process at Fenwick Labs, the firm’s internal tech incubator.

Though artificial intelligence based “assistants” like Fenni are a new addition in Big Law, AI adoption is quickly expanding at firms as lawyers seek new ways to work more efficiently.

How it Works

Users can access Fenni via their desktop, through an internet browser, on a Google home device, via email, or on the firm’s proprietary mobile app. Although Fenni understands spoken language, most users prefer to type their questions, according to Gerow.

Joy Heath Rush, CEO of the International Legal Technology Association, said there are numerous challenges that come with digital personal assistants in law firms, including dealing with background noise, and of course the need for privacy and confidentiality.

“Especially when it comes to having confidential conversations with clients, you don’t want your Alexa sitting in there and listening,” said Rush. Alexa is Amazon’s popular virtual assistant.

Fenni is a way to use digital personal assistants in the legal workplace “in a way that’s safe,” Rush noted.

Fenwick Labs developed Fenni using Google’s natural language platform. The tool is built on top of Google AI but also plugs into Fenwick’s systems and third party resources like WestLaw, Lexis and Salesforce. The tool was first introduced to staff in January 2018 and then to attorneys firm-wide in July.

“I think the underlying problem, which is endemic to all law firms, is the amount of information and processes are exploding, the amount of time is finite, and our clients are expecting us to move faster and faster,” Gerow said.

Fenni isn’t meant to revolutionize the way the law firm does business, Gerow said, but it speeds up tasks.

“What it’s really doing is compressing the time required to get to the resources or the processes that our attorneys need to serve our clients,” he explained.

“Our manager of paralegal services loves the rate lookup because she is constantly getting questions from partners and others about paralegals’ rates,” added Gerow. “She knows where to go on the Intranet, but Fenni is faster. It’s the difference between 30 to 60 seconds and 10 seconds, multiple times a day.”

Asked and Answered

Legal tech consultant Ron Friedmann said the technology is likely finding success because many lawyers are already familiar with digital assistants on their cell phones or tools like Alexa.

“For a long time, lawyers have had inflated expectations about what technology can do,” he said. “I’ve seen the, ‘Well I pressed the button nothing happened’ syndrome. I think here, expectations will be reasonable because of all of our experiences.”

Friedmann said he’s unaware of any other firm with a customized digital assistant like Fenni.

Gerow said Fenni is answering about 300 questions per week, but that number is increasing as lawyers and staff members become more familiar with the app. There’s about a 50/50 split between users on the legal side (partners, associates, paralegals) and the staff side of Fenwick & West.

Predictably, more digital-friendly associates tend to use Fenni the most.

Gerow and his team are constantly fine tuning Fenni’s natural language processing abilities behind the scenes. If users are phrasing a question in a way that Fenni doesn’t understand, Gerow will pick up on it and fix it.

There’s been some anxiety in legal industry about artificial intelligence tools taking work away from human lawyers and staff.

Gerow said some staff members have expressed concern, but they shouldn’t worry. He’s tried to keep communication light and playful around Fenni “to help people feel good about this as a tool and not threatened by it.”

“There is an infinite amount of additional work for anyone to do, so I don’t think there is any risk of Fenni taking anyone’s job,” he said. “But it could change their job.”