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Would You Trust A Lawyer Bot With Your Legal Needs?

Artificial intelligence can help write small-claims court filings, leases and more, but some law professors urge caution. Would You Trust A Lawyer Bot With Your Legal Needs?

Would you entrust a personal-injury claim, divorce settlement or high-stakes contract to an algorithm? A growing number of apps and digital services are betting you will, attracting millions of Silicon Valley investment dollars but raising questions about the limits and ethics of technology in the legal sphere.

Among the leaders in the emergent robo-lawyering field is DoNotPay, an app dreamed up by Joshua Browder in 2015, when he was a 17-year-old Stanford University student, to help friends dispute parking tickets.

The app, which relies on an artificial intelligence-enabled chatbot, became popular, and has expanded its focus to other consumer legal services. In June it hit the million-case mark, helping save people upward of $30 million since it started, Mr. Browder says. It raised a new $12 million round of funding the same month.

Mr. Browder has positioned DoNotPay as a tool for the little guy to fight big businesses and government—an area he says is “not rocket science” and is therefore ripe for automation. It can help you cancel unwanted subscriptions, get compensation from airlines for flight delays and file lawsuits in small-claims court.

It can write an aggressive letter to Ticketmaster to get a refund for a concert canceled due to the novel coronavirus, and, yes, dispute parking tickets. The app is free to download and $3 a month to use the services.

“In consumer rights at least we’re not trying to do criminal defense or something very serious,” he says. “Either you’re getting a refund from Comcast or you’re [not].”

DoNotPay is one of a wave of tech startups trying to automate legal work. They include FlightRight, which helps get compensation for air-travel snafus; Robot Lawyer Lisa, which generates lease documents and non-disclosure agreements; and U.K.-based Farewill, which algorithmically generates wills based on users’ input, although the documents are then checked by humans.

These services have attracted users largely by promising to save them money and time, as well as allowing them to draft documents or pursue smaller-value disputes without shouldering the high costs of hiring a lawyer.

Many of the services work the same way: Using information from the user, a program draws on stores of legal data to intelligently fill out a small-claims court filing, challenge a fine or write a cease-and-desist letter. Because the algorithm is tuned to make the optimal choices on the user’s behalf, it theoretically results in a better outcome than a person would get on his or her own.

“ As soon as there’s some complexity or some resistance by the system, the automation is unable to handle it. ”
— Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington

If the dispute subsequently becomes more complex, however, people might find themselves in over their heads.

Skeptics say the legal profession is heavily regulated for a reason, and using robo-lawyers could get people into trouble if they malfunction, or if the people they sue on your behalf decide to fight back.

“As soon as there’s some complexity or some resistance by the system, the automation is unable to handle it,” says Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington whose specialties include robotics and automation. “There’s an impression that this app will help you navigate the legal system, but it will only help you to a small extent.”

The law, moreover, is ill-prepared to deal with algorithms when they overstep their bounds. The question of who would be responsible for an erroneous filing by a legal bot on your behalf is largely unanswered by courts around the world—a challenge similar to the question of who is liable when autonomous vehicles are involved in accidents.

Drew Simshaw, a law professor at Gonzaga University, wrote in a 2018 paper that the legal profession had to balance the benefits of access to do-it-yourself justice offered by apps like DoNotPay against ethical concerns that arise when they veer into doing legal work autonomously.

“The legal profession’s advocacy for crippling restrictions on legal self-help solutions could potentially stunt the development of the larger AI revolution in law in ways that would ultimately favor large firms over the public interest,” he wrote.

AI has to be careful to stick to providing legal information that helps people file cases without straying into giving legal advice, which in the U.S. could constitute illegally practicing law without a license. Mr. Browder says his company hasn’t been sued, and that he uses many of the same tools lawyers do to keep up with changing laws and to avoid erroneous filings.

Legal tech companies have faced challenges before, though. In 2017, Palo Alto, Calif.-based law firm LegalForce RAPC Worldwide sued LegalZoom, a company that helps people draft legal documents with a combination of lawyers and software.

LegalForce argued that LegalZoom was practicing law without a license; the case was settled confidentially out of court last year, according to court records. LegalZoom declined to comment on the settlement.

In part because of such murkiness, many startups in legal tech operate around the margins of cases. Divorcify, a startup founded by Boston-based family law attorney Casey Shevin, uses a chatbot to guide people through filing for divorce by helping them decide which route—a light-touch mediation, out-of-court negotiation or full-on litigation—is right for them.

It stops short of becoming involved in the legal process and, instead, steers users to lawyers who specialize in the right kind of settlement.

Others have avoided ethical scrutiny by focusing on serving lawyers rather than clients, like LexCheck Inc., a startup that automatically reviews contracts as they are being negotiated and suggests fixes.

LexCheck raised $3 million of seed funding in May and is part of a growing crop of automation technologies that could cut down on legal grunt work currently done by paralegals or junior lawyers. Deloitte in 2016 estimated that 114,000 legal jobs could be automated away in two decades.

The messier cases, however, may stay in the hands of humans for some time to come, a conclusion Mr. Browder reached the hard way. A couple of years ago, he tested out a divorce-filing service that sputtered.

“Even in simple cases, there was too much human emotion and judgement involved, something that software is not good at understanding,” he says. “The early results were promising in some areas, but we feel that computers could never handle courtroom drama and it would be better to focus on other areas.”

Still, Mr. Browder isn’t shying away from potentially messy experiments. After raising his new round of financing, he is planning to launch a personal-injury lawsuit service in the coming months.

 

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