I’ve seen The Matrix. I know that one day robots will steal all our jobs and we’ll be turned into physics-defying batteries. The robot revolution might be coming sooner for some of us then we may think. Specifically, I’m talking about lawyers and their new AI overlord, DoNotPay.
I’ve been looking into chatbots over the last few months and came across DoNotPay, which is an interesting case. DoNotPay was created in 2015 by Joshua Browder, a Stanford student. It’s designed to help people without a legal background solve their legal issues; it started with parking tickets and has expanded to address immigration applications, asylum support, and certain lawsuits. Since it launched it has received a ridiculous amount of media attention. More on that later.
Browder talks a big game claiming that the site has saved people $11 million in fines and that “lawyers all over the world should be very scared of this technology”. The question is, does it live up to the hype?
I want to stop for a second here and give some disclosure so you know where I’m coming from. First of all, I’m going to go ahead and say that I’ve become pretty jaded with Silicon Valley’s lofty, and often absurd, claims of over-hyped disruption and invention. Secondly, and less snidely, I work in the same field; using technology to lower the barriers of access to justice. I’ve also worked on projects that have some similarities to what DoNotPay purports to do.
I’ve tried a few of the functions of the chatbot but let’s look at the feature that lets us “[automatically] sue Equifax for up to $25,000” as it’s fairly representative. You may remember they had a little bit of a data breach this summer. As I walked through the process the bot asked me a handful of basic questions about myself (name, address, etc.) and then a spat out a PDF. That PDF was one anemic page of instructions and then a court form filled out with my information.
Does that help you automatically sue Equifax? No, no it doesn’t. Filling out the form is step one of a multistep process. I’m not an expert on small claims court in the US but it looks like you’re in for a lot of work and potentially a lot of trouble. It also doesn’t explain the process you need to follow and that missing context can cause you more headaches than this solves.
I don’t want to downplay the filling out of court forms. They are notoriously difficult to fill out properly and can be rejected by the court for even the smallest mistake. It’s not unheard of to have to fill out a form three or four times before it gets accepted.
DoNotPay is not a technical or legal marvel. If you asked a developer, they’re not going to be particularly impressed by a chatbot that fills out some generic legal forms for you or queries a database using keywords. Lawyers would think even less of it, arguing that the work it does is trivial and that the lack of substantive legal information is potentially dangerous. To that I’m sure Browder would respond that that trivial work is saving people a lot of money.
They would all be right. They would all also be missing the most important thing DoNotPay does. It empowers the user by letting them feel like they can tackle the problem themselves. The problem with the legal system is that people don’t feel they have agency or capacity. Many people can handle legal problems without a lawyer. In fact many are forced to. In Canada it’s estimated that up to 80% of family law cases are self-represented. That’s not good and this chatbot isn’t going to help with that. What it can do though is give people the confidence they need to proactively tackle these issues.
I asked the question before if DoNotPay lived up to the hype. Maybe it doesn’t, but hype is the product here. Browder may not have invented the second-coming of the legal system but he has created and publicized a tool that has engaged people and left them feeling empowered and feeling like they can get justice.
That’s the lesson I want to take away. The justice system for many people is a juggernaut and chipping away at it and creating a David and Goliath situation means that many people are taking action when they wouldn’t have before. There are a lot of other issues, climate change for example, that feel daunting but where small actions from a lot of people can have an impact. We just need to make them feel like they can make a difference.