When Joshua Browder came up with the idea for DoNotPay, a chatbot to walk defendants through the basic handling of parking tickets, it had its merits. After all, many defendants were unable to afford a lawyer to represent them, and the offenses were infractions, not crimes, so the cost of failure was low. And frankly, most defendants lacked the focus and knowledge to handle their defense adequately, no less competently, so any help that guided people down a reasonably sound path was better than nothing.
Then he got more ambitious.
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.
While DoNotPay made an initial splash with its claims, it soon faded into obscurity. Did it work? Did it do harm? Did it even happen? Maybe, but I (for one) didn’t care enough to find out as it played no serious role in the legal universe. Like almost all “legal tech” startups, its initial claims of disruption soon blurred and then faded. But Browder is back.
First, it was an offer to pay $1,000,000 to any lawyer who would put in an earpiece and let Browder’s A.I. “lawyer” whisper in his ear for oral argument before the Supreme Court, repeating the words to the Court. No one leaped for the dough, unsurprisingly, but it did garner Browder a good deal of attention. “Look at me,” the A.I. lawyer shouted. And now that it’s got your attention, Browder revealed the real show.
In a subsequent twit, now deleted, Browder twitted that his A.I. lawbot has subpoenaed the officer to court, evoking howls of damnation from lawyers everywhere because it was the stupidest possible thing he could have done, even though he didn’t realize it because he’s not a lawyer and, apparently, his A.I. bot wasn’t aware of the fact that the surest route to dismissal is when the cop fails to appear.
For a while, legal tech was all the rage, with everyone from academics to entrepreneurs trying to Reinvent The Law with gimmicks no one wanted or needed, created by people with no clue what lawyering involved or how law was done. They are almost all gone today after their initial promise of changing everything proved as bankrupt as their financing. I wrote about some of it here in the hope of saving some lawyers the misery of hopping aboard that future of law train before it crashed.
But while Browder’s DoNotPay was part of the legal tech gold rush, it was directed toward a different audience, the underserved client who couldn’t afford a living, breathing, competent lawyer. The “access to justice,” or A2J movement, was happening simultaneously, most notably with a handful of lawprofs trying to come up with a way to serve the poor, who couldn’t afford lawyers. It wasn’t without its virtues, although it wasn’t without its flaws either.
Browder jumped in with DoNotPay during the throes of this movement, experimenting with alternate forms of law firms including expanding the practice to non-lawyers and non-lawyer ownership of firms. The crux of these innovations was pretending that all the reasons why they were terrible ideas in the first place were really protectionist lies by lawyers trying to preserve their monopoly so they could reap the huge financial rewards of their guild.
Three lessons were learned. First, few people wanted to put their life or fortune at risk by trying these novelties. Second, these gimmick innovations wanted to make money just as much as anyone else; they were not as charitable as they pretended to be. Third, many lawyers outside of Biglaw were sucking wind and were more than happy to take the case for a reasonable fee. While people, to no one’s shock, preferred free to paid legal services, they still wanted to be represented by a lawyer and couldn’t care less about his google glasses.
With the introduction of Chatbots capable of writing a post about the Supreme Court like Elie Mystal, could there finally be an innovation that would accomplish what all the hype failed to do? It may well be that A.I. has some role to play in law, doing the pedestrian background work that one would slough off on a baby lawyer.
It could do basic research, assuming your knowledge of your practice area was so constrained that you needed the basics researched. If someone was going into court pro se, which happened whether for lack of funds to retain counsel or the romantic fantasy that you’ll be that one in a million who will pull out a Shon Hopwood-type score, an A.I. lawbot would likely be very helpful.
But Browder’s reach exceeds his grasp. Technical knowledge of law is certainly important, and A.I. would do a fine job of looking up keywords and stringing them together in a modestly competent fashion, better than an inexperienced or incompetent lawyer. But winning is more art than science, and while A.I. may be better than nothing (and may even win the occasional case), it will still subpoena the cop to court because that’s what the caselaw says it should do even though any lawyer worth his salt knows that’s nuts.