Donotpay, But Do Not Complain

The argument is straightforward: for people who are not going to hire a lawyer but want to fight a parking ticket, a chatbot that provides them with kinda obvious, albeit simplistic, guidance is better than nothing. So DoNotPay was born, and was a success.

So someone thought to create an app that walks you through the elements, the common defenses and how to document them so as to beat the ticket. That’s great! Silly as these things may seem to a lawyer, normal people don’t think in terms of elements, defenses and evidence. The worst that can happen is you don’t beat the ticket, and the best is that you learn what to do to fight it. What’s wrong with that?

Is it a substitute for a lawyer when your life is at stake? Hardly, but this is a parking ticket, not a capital prosecution. This fills a gap in the law that needed filling, and apparently provides a sufficiently sound how-to list to be pretty successful.

But extrapolating one success to another doesn’t always work the same way. It requires a deeper understanding of why one idea is good, or at least not incredibly bad, and why it doesn’t necessarily translate into another

Two years ago, Joshua Browder launched his DoNotPay chatbot as “the world’s first robot lawyer” to help people fight parking tickets. He reported a high rate of success, winning 160,000 out of 250,000 cases. He later expanded it to provide free legal aid to the homeless, then expanded it again to help refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. and Canada, and earlier this week he announced a massive expansion into another 1,000 legal areas.

How to fill out repetitive forms, as with refugee applications, seems a perfectly fine use of a chatbot, with the caveat that it’s not wrong and harmful, But 1,000 legal areas is…ambitious. No doubt Browder is a brilliant and passionate young man, flush with the success he achieved with parking tickets and certain that what he is doing will serve the poor and downtrodden. But 1,000 legal areas?

Lawyers, after all, are notoriously expensive. But DoNotPay’s lawyers are free. And these automated lawyers are especially helpful for low-income individuals who need to fight common legal issues.

No, DoNotPay does not have lawyers. It’s not a lawyer. To suggest otherwise is not just nonsense, but an outright lie. It’s a bot created by a non-lawyer who feels the injustice of impoverished people.

“I think the world is such an unfair place,” he says. “Credit card companies charge the poor more for the same thing. Employers don’t respect the right to maternity leave. Half of all parking tickets are dismissed in New York. Previously, the main way to correct this unfairness was to pay a lawyer hundreds of dollars to copy and paste a document. I hope DoNotPay gives more people a way to stand up for their rights.”

Aww. That’s so sweet. But lying to poor people, by lying to oneself, may comport with law on Fantasy Island, but not necessarily in the real world. Browder’s gushing empathy isn’t going to do much to help people whose lives are destroyed because they got confused because Mashable said it’s a lawyer bot and it’s really just some crap some unduly passionate kid came up with.

But Browder isn’t done yet, as his passion overflows.

Today, Browder took it a step further, opening up his platform so that anyone can create a legal bot for free, with no technical knowledge.

“Starting today, any lawyer, activist, student or charity can create a bot with no technical knowledge in minutes,” Browder writes in a post this morning on Medium.

“You can use your bot to save money within your business, provide a better experience to clients or improve access to justice,” he writes. “Regardless, you will establish yourself as a leader in legal technology by having a cool bot link to share.”

Just like getting your legal advice from reddit, anyone, no matter how incompetent, clueless or completely insane, can use Browder’s bot to destroy people’s lives in the name of whatever crazy shit flows between the ears.

Lawyers understand that poor people can’t afford their services, though the vast majority aren’t poor but just don’t want to allocate scarce resources to lawyers (who are “notoriously expensive,” you know) if they don’t have to. And there are a series of initiatives, from civil legal aid to Washington State’s L3T initiative, to Wal-Mart lawyers, to serve the population who can’t afford legal counsel but needs it.

This, however, just took a dive into the cesspool. It’s one thing to tell poor people who can’t figure out on their own that they should put some antibiotic ointment, then a band-aid, on their cut. It’s another to tell them how to perform brain surgery on their kids. And it’s yet another to throw the door wide open to let faith healers tell them to treat their cancer with leeches. The hubris of passion, ignorance and youth won’t make it any more palatable to the lives you destroy.

Browder expects that some of the bots created through this service will be incorporated into DoNotPay. That would be contingent on DoNotPay staff verifying that the bot is legally correct and also on the creator of the bot consenting to its inclusion.

Staff? Who would that be? One can’t find out from the website, and since it’s out of the UK, it’s not amendable to suit in the United States. I’m going to take a wild guess and say you don’t have a few dozen experienced lawyers at work in the boiler room. So who “verifies” that it’s legally correct? No competent lawyer* would even suggest such an inane thought as one-size-fits-all could ever be legally correct. But since there is zero transparency here, it could be Browder’s pet monkeys for all we know.

We all get it. Life is too expensive. Lawyers are too expensive. SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!!! Harming people with best of intentions is not the answer. And some basic info on how to fight a traffic ticket doesn’t make you a lawyer.

The concept seemed fine when it was limited to a very simple, very repetitive problem with very low cost of failure. The worst that could happen if you lost your parking ticket case was that you paid the ticket. No biggie. Now, this is into seriously harmful territory, and the cost could be devastating. This is not law. This is not a lawyer. There is no recourse if it destroys your life. Use it if you must, but don’t complain afterward that some bot failed you. You knew it was only some unduly passionate kid’s bot when you chose to use it.

*But plenty of unduly passionate lawyers would likely kvell at the opportunity, in the name of helping the poor.

25 thoughts on “Donotpay, But Do Not Complain

  1. B. McLeod

    Well, this certainly made me rethink the IPO chatbot I was going to use to finance my new, net-based legal services concept. I guess it’s back to Go Fund Me.

    1. SHG Post author

      On the contrary, IPO away then get the hell out before the lawsuits and imprisonment for UPL. Remember, you’re American and we can find you.

  2. Marc Whipple

    I built a chatbot with the idea that it could at least tell people the difference between patents and copyrights and which one to ask a lawyer about. It is incredibly basic and simplifies the concepts to the point where I don’t even want to show it to lawyers because they will point out all the crucial things it is oversimplifying.

    I showed it to a tech expert and they said, “Too wordy. Reads like a blog. Too much text to read on a phone.”

    If that’s how my Lord-I’m-nearly-afraid-to-let-people-use-it super simple chatbot is received, I don’t see this actually-gives-advice chatbot going anywhere good.

    1. SHG Post author

      Don’t be silly. Poor people are for practice, and passionate people believe strongly enough to overcome anything. It will all work out fine, and if it doesn’t, at least they tried. Trying makes them feel all good and social justice-y about themselves, and seriously, isn’t that what really matters?

  3. Richard Kopf


    From Ms. Dupere*, at Mashable:

    Browder “says he witnessed how many lawyers ‘exploit human misery’ for profit, especially impacting low-income people.”

    If this vast group of lawyers didn’t exploit the human misery of poor people, then an infinite number of computer geeks would fill the gap. I prefer those lawyers. They shower more frequently. Better call Saul!

    All the best.


    *”Katie Dupere is a Social Good reporter at Mashable, covering activism, identities and social impact. Prior to her work with Mashable, Katie penned pieces about queerness, body positivity, sex and relationships for Gurl. She also previously contributed LGBTQ news coverage to PinkNews.”

      1. wilbur

        I always wanted business cards with Mr. Fuji, the wrestling manager’s nickname: “The Devious One”.

        The State wouldn’t pop for them, so it’s just plain “Wilbur”.

  4. kushiro

    I figure the first 2 or 3 dozen of these submissions will feature some combination of:

    not driving, traveling
    not the person, but the agent for the person
    gold fringe on the flag
    “am I being detained?”
    random selections from Black’s Law Dictionary

  5. Gregg

    Somebody needs to make a bot: “How to Sue the Makers of Legal Bots Because Your Life Went to Shit after You Followed Their Advice.”

  6. JimEd

    In one of my future worlds you are restrained in a medical harness, forced to answer legal questions through a poorly designed app.

  7. Patrick Maupin

    It’s one thing to tell poor people who can’t figure out on their own that they should put some antibiotic ointment, then a band-aid, on their cut. It’s another to tell them how to perform brain surgery on their kids.

    I don’t see a bright line; ergo there must be no line.

    Trepanation FTW!

    1. Alurkalot

      Trepanning is no more brain surgery than is scalping. Both are merely means to the end; precursors to the main event. Says so right here in my new ad-supported app.

        1. Alurkalot

          That’s what she said.

          You’re still conflating the two. Once you’ve trepanned, the brain is available for further and/or additional manipulation, but the skull already has the access port established. It is not necessary to remove the trepanning instrument to proceed with the organ surgery.

  8. andrews

    The [] chatbot access appears to have been replaced with one of those domain parking pages. This may not help with your parking tickets or other legal problems.

    It is still probably not efficient to pay a lawyer to fight most parking tickets. Even the handicapped-parking tickets here would make that a marginal proposition unless you found someone who handled huge stacks of them.

    1. SHG Post author

      For parking tix, it was a great idea. The problem is trying to scale it to other areas of law that are more consequential.

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