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Conan O'Brien and Chatbots: Parallel examples of technology challenging the status quo.

Updated: Nov 13, 2018

Conan O’Brien sounds a lot like a law firm these days.


The TV host is changing his late night show in 2019 from the Carson-esque hourlong, multi-interview format to a half hour, less structured show leveraging digital outlets and live remotes. O’Brien is the longest-running host in late night television, having hosted an hourlong talk show since 1993, first on NBC and since 2010 on TBS. A student of late night, reverent toward Jack Paar and Steve Allen, this is his first attempt to entirely rethink the format of a late night show. Comedy Central’s Daily Show and Colbert Report were initial entries into a new conceptualizing of late night, and Conan’s network compatriot Samantha Bee followed suit. But as a late night elder statesman, this is a first.


Why change? His conventional TV ratings are modest compared to years ago, but his digital numbers are growing and drawing younger viewers to his content. Youtube segments like “Clueless Gamer,” where O’Brien fails miserably playing newly released video games, have earned him the youngest average audience age in late night, advantageous for prospective advertisers looking to sponsor his show. This success in new media helped push O’Brien to innovate the form of his TV show. O’Brien himself said he wanted “something that fits the modern landscape…more lean and agile.”


Sounds exactly like what an innovation officer at a law firm would say.


Like Conan, law firms are working to innovate how they do things. Legal Six Sigma is catching traction in the C-suite even after Six Sigma caught fire in the business world fifteen-ish years ago. Some firms, like Perkins Coie or Mishcon de Reya, are embracing internal incubator environments. Ogletree Deakins and Latham & Watkins are making DIY information and self-service content available on its own website and in various portal solutions. Clyde & Co has Clyde Code, its distributed ledger technology to allow clients to make use of smart contract solutions. Prism Legal has a fairly updated list of biglaw’s online service offerings and other ways firms are looking to digital offerings as a positive change to the way they serve clients.


Another way firms are looking to change how they serve clients is using chatbots. Slow to take hold, firms are starting to explore chatbots as a way to offer quick advice and answer simple questions clients have. Take Parker, a chatbot Norton Rose Fulbright has put to work in Australia. Parker notifies clients of changes to the law regarding privacy and data protection. First launched in December 2017 to address changing Australia data privacy laws, each version of Parker uses natural language processing to answer questions related to data privacy laws like Canada's PIPEDA and the EU's GDPR. The latest Parker, Parker Insurance, applies the same user experience for the EU’s IDD.


Chatbots are being deployed all across today’s world. Virtual financial assistants, like Bank of America’s Erica, are helping customers manage their finances and answer questions. Airlines are rolling out chatbots within Facebook Messenger that allow travelers to receive instant support, book flights, and pay through the app. Malaysia Airlines’ MHchat and WestJet’s Juliet are just a few examples of these solutions leveraging AI to provide a quick, convenient, and on-demand solution to customers. It makes sense for law firms to follow suit.


This October, I referenced these solutions at a CLE I gave to a Long Island law firm. At once, a partner pushed back with a perspective I’ve heard voiced before. “How do we put this genie back in the bottle? How do we prevent AI-empowered bots from taking jobs needed by people?” This partner admitted growing up reading Asimov and Heinlein, a baby boomer who caught the futurist bug Tom Swift and the Space Race inspired. Fast forward to today, and he’s worried that technological zeal has real negative consequences for the human workforce.


Indeed, innovation and embrace of technology can have an effect on the workforce. Conan O’Brien (himself the son of a retired Ropes & Gray partner) is going through this today. When he announced his new show format, it did not include his longtime live band. This sort of workforce disruption, one some lawyers fear, has long been seen in the entertainment industry. Radio (and later TV) networks employed entire orchestras in the 1940s and 1950s. But these double-digit music groups gradually were replaced as electric instruments and audio engineering innovations boomed in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, the CBS Orchestra iteration led by Paul Shaffer on the David Letterman show had less than ten members by the time Letterman retired from network television in 2015.


Taste in music aside, the economics of this are overt. Why hire three trumpeters and three trombonists when a microphone and amplifier allows you to do the same job with one of each? Or, why not use a drum machine that has more sound options than any given drummer’s personal kit? It’s no secret that pop music today increasingly uses programmed digital instruments over hiring live musicians in studios and venues. Chris Love, a producer and studio owner in Nashville, lists his studio gear on his website. The list of software and plugins is longer than the list of instruments available. Love, himself a talented drummer and guitarist who performed with Maroon 5, Jason Derulo, and surviving Jimi Hendrix Experience members, is more often behind a maschine than a drum set today. For other musicians who failed to expand into technological mastery, job prospects have diminished as the need for their skills can be filled by technology.


Musicians, like lawyers, are trained in a profession, offering unique skills and expertise. Is technology devaluing such specialization and drying up ways for people to make a living?


Chris Love would tell you no.


Technology allows his independent studio the ability to create recordings on par with major labels, and gives him agility as the music industry itself moves away from the major record label and distribution model of the last fifty years. It’s allowed Chris to work with up and coming artists, have his music available on new streaming platforms, and provide a more customized level of client service than major industry conglomerates.


Conan O’Brien would tell you no.


In the wake of a career nadir, being fired from hosting NBC’s Tonight Show, O’Brien took his show on a live tour based on a groundswell of fan support through facebook. That led to the genesis of Team Coco. Originally a facebook group for his fans, it became the launchpad of a digital platform, including content never aired on TV, that was easier accessed by consumers looking for entertainment on their computers instead of televisions. O’Brien rebuilt his career from his digital presence and following, through which he gained a new younger fan base who don’t get entertainment through traditional providers, and set the tone for digital content followed by peers such as James Corden’s viral carpool videos or Jimmy Kimmel’s twitter-centric sketches. Now, every late night host has a YouTube channel, twitter handle, and employ entire digital content teams.


Increasingly, I suspect law firms would tell you no.


Like Norton Rose, enterprising law firms are broadening their services, practice areas, and methods of providing legal advice to clients because they are asking for it. At the same law firm where the partner pressed me on AI taking lawyer jobs, another partner (who did not attend my CLE) commented that with bots able to answer the simple questions and handle the mundane tasks, lawyers were free to maximize business development opportunities, dive deeper into sophisticated tasks, or become more agile and adept in meeting each client’s unique needs. It’s needs like these why law firms are increasingly adopting AI empowered solutions like analytics and automation. Unprompted and away from each other, I find it unsurprising two partners at the same firm spoke to both sides of the AI coin.


It is true change is hard. Industry transformation is not without growing pains. Some jobs will be created, some jobs will change, and some jobs will disappear. But technology is expanding the ways clients are reached and served. It isn’t that clients no longer want expert legal advice, but they are getting savvier about how legal services are rendered and the price tag attached. Conan O’Brien knows this with his own audience. They still want entertainment, but in a more convenient and cost-efficient format. He’s leveraging technology to innovate his show in a way better tailored to his fan base. Law firms can follow suit and as Conan said, evolve “to fit the modern landscape.”

© 2018 Peter Colin, Jr.