FREE LEGAL ADVICE

The “world’s first robot lawyer” isn’t a damn lawyer

Obsession
Language
Obsession
Language

Motion to dismiss

May it please the Court of public opinion (though it probably won’t), I am a lawyer. As such, I move here to dismiss claims that a chatbot can do an attorney’s job.

Standing

Pursuant to no law but based on my concern that people have no clue what lawyers do, I hereby submit arguments for the legal profession.

Facts

  1. There have been many enthusiastic media reports about “the world’s first robot lawyer.”
  2. Stanford University student Joshua Browder, 19—creator of a chatbot called DoNotPay that offers free legal advice in the US and UK—is not a lawyer.
  3. A chatbot is also patently not a lawyer, no more so than a legal form or that guy who offers advice despite not being licensed to practice law. You know, the one who always says, “I’m not a lawyer but…” (See under: IANAL).
  4. You can tell DoNotPay what your legal problem is, and, in some cases, it can direct you to legal forms and information it believes are relevant. However, the app’s offerings are extremely limited, and Browder admits this.
  5. The app was created with the help of “volunteer and part-time attorneys” who provided Browder with feedback on local law in two countries on two continents. You cannot check their certification.
  6. The app cannot visit you in jail, represent you in court, sign a document, convince the opposition, cajole a judge, charm a prosecutor, pay your bail bondsperson, negotiate a resolution, or be held liable criminally or civilly for ineffective assistance.
  7. The language skills of machines aren’t advanced enough to handle nuanced human issues and may never be, according to experts in AI.

Argument

  1. Don’t believe everything you read. Lawyers and reporters use language to present information. Obviously, their contexts are different and thus their methods must diverge. When reporters write about the world’s first robot lawyer, they’re seeking as many readers as possible, not precision (see above headline). But definitions are everything in the law, and in this case it’s safe to say that the chatbot cannot be a lawyer as the term is understood culturally. The bot is incapable of legal representation and isn’t admitted to practice law in any jurisdiction.
  2. Legal certification’s necessarily involved. Browder deserves kudos for his entrepreneurial spirit, yet it’s worth noting that neither he nor his bot are ready to apply for law school, much less hand out legal advice en masse (see under: Facts 2, 3). To be a lawyer in the US he must still graduate college, pass challenging law-school entrance exams, apply for school, and be admitted. Then he’d have to do three years of grueling study, plus an internship. After graduating, he’d have to pass a bar exam on a maddeningly wide range of state laws. If he passed on the first go, he’d have his character and moral fitness reviewed by state legal authorities, submitting personal and financial records for review, as well as recommendations. To be admitted to the bar, he’d have to swear an oath as an officer of the court and be subject to liability for ineffective assistance. It’s easier to just call a bot “the world’s first robot lawyer” than it is to become even the most robotic of human counsel.
  3. No one is responsible for this advice. The great thing about a human lawyer is that you can call with a follow-up question or, in the worst-case scenario, sue them when they mess up. Not so with DoNotPay. Users are responsible for their own representation and ultimately lack the guidance of a lawyer and the protections clients get from their lawyers’ certifications. If you’re facing a case that’s no big deal—simple parking tickets, say—well, then you probably didn’t really need a lawyer anyway.
  4. Lawyers are people too. Attorneys seem awful because you mostly only need them in times of trouble but they’re actually great because they’re humans, just like you, and they specialize in solving woes. Your legal counsel will not offer automatic one-size-fits-all responses, like DoNotPay; she will, in your lowest time, provide guidance tailored to your situation. She’ll put on a snazzy suit and argue eloquently for you before a courtroom full of people who are indifferent to your fate and make them care. Your lawyer will take your call at midnight when your kid’s in jail with a DUI, and explain that it’s fine, this happens to all kinds of good parents all the time. Also, your lawyer can pour you a coffee before delivering bad news.
  5. Language is the province of humans. Putting certification aside—which is absurd, given that it’s necessary to provide the services of a lawyer—any technology that can’t handle cultural or linguistic nuance lacks the ability to master the key skill of lawyering, which is the art of arguing. Lawyers hate straight answers because the law is nuanced, cases are fact-specific, and language is up for interpretation—any bot or person that confidently proclaims it has answers based on generalizations has obviously not spent any time in the legal trenches. Machines are far from super-advanced linguists, and some AI experts doubt they will ever reach a human-like experience with language because language acquisition is a complex cognitive and cultural mystery that relies on context. Machines can at this point only be trained to understand language in a rudimentary fashion, kind of like a kid, so maybe not who you want on your case.
  6. The bot’s got problems. For simple issues like parking tickets, the bot can direct you to the forms and processes needed to fight the infraction yourself. Those cases are often straightforward anyway and judges tend to reward people who show up in court by fining them less, or taking away fewer points on their license, than if they hadn’t shown up. But legal forms and general advice have long been available through services and for free. Courts assist with simple problems online, too. If you need a form and a general answer, your best bet is a court website, not a bot. And the chatbot certainly can’t handle complex law, or take account of the specific circumstances surrounding a case. Search on DoNotPay online for “murder” or “battery” and you’ll get a polite apology and blank white space.
  7. Watch those wacky kiddos. Browder has said he looks forward to disrupting the $200 billion legal industry with his for-now free application which has thus far proven itself useful in assisting people fighting parking tickets. “Some of the biggest law firms can’t be happy,” he told The Verge. But while DoNotPay says it is now able to handle 1,000 different types of claims, it still doesn’t do divorces or crime—difficult things that real people deal with. It also isn’t about to disrupt Big Law since businesses that spend on fancy firms aren’t about trade down for a free bot that they can’t talk to.

Conclusion

For the foregoing reasons, counsel begs this court to object the next time someone claims a simplistic bot can do the complex job of a human who specializes in language and is trained in the art of argument.

Respectfully submitted,

Ephrat Livni

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Browder’s app will not remain free, based on statements he made about plans to monetize. This article has been corrected after Browder wrote to Quartz to clarify that the app will remain free, but that he will seek paid sponsors for various topics.

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