Advocate's Studio - Musings on Technology in the Law, Research and Writing
I know it has been a fearfully long while since I last posted here. I forgive anyone and everyone from abandoning the empty, echoing halls of AdvocatesStudio for greener and more fertile and more updated tech blog pastures. Yet, here I am, writing again, prompted by the thought that suing someone may be as simple as downloading an app. DoNotPay, a robot lawyer Chatbot app, is now promising to help people file suits in small claims court, no JD required. And, because I like the cheap and free around here, DoNotPay currently is free for users. That is a lot cheaper than the hourly rate charged by the average lawyer.
Developer Josh Browder, now barely drinking age here in the US, created DoNotPay as a means of automating the process of challenging parking tickets, mainly inspired by his own excessive collection of tickets generated shortly after receiving his drivers’ license. The ChatBot – a conversational interface that prompts a user to provide information that can then be leveraged by the AI to provide answers or actions – allowed users to select one of several defenses to the ticket, enter details and send an appeal generated by the app to the appropriate legal authority. Browder taught himself to code at the age of 12, and his efforts certainly haven’t been wasted – the first version of the bot in 2015 reportedly saved UK drivers approximately 2 million pounds in two months time. Buoyed by his early success, Browder has allegedly claimed his app may “take down” the legal profession, which undoubtedly will be applauded by a couple of people.
Following on the parking ticket win, Josh added new beta functionality to the app in 2017 on the heels of the massive Equifax data breach – he apparently also was swept up into the breach (notice a trend here?). DoNotPay offered the ability to sue Equifax in small claims courts throughout the U.S. up to the small claims jurisdictional limit, ranging from $2,500 to $25,000. The new functionality basically assisted the user in preparing the forms necessary for the small claims action; you still had to serve the Complaint and attend the hearing. After entering your name and address in the app and the app generated the necessary papers to institute a small claims action in a PDF format that could be printed and filed. Providing any assistance in the process, though, is a benefit to users unfamiliar with local small claims practice who might otherwise not bother to navigate the legal maze. And, as found with the parking tickets, users reported some success using the app to secure awards from Equifax.
Within the past week, Browder has again tweaked the app, now permitting users to create documents to sue anyone in small claims court. And, the Bot is now available via mobile application – previously, the tool was strictly web based. An Android app is coming, Browder promises. There are additional new features, and this might be where Browder monetizes – users can find deals on fast food by filling out surveys and deals on prescription and over-the-counter drugs, make appointments at the California Department of Motor Vehicles and check on class action settlement eligibility.
The app can be used to help fight bank fees and dispute transactions, secure refunds from companies like Uber, and fix credit reports. Like the beta version, the bot asks for a name and address, claim size (to see if it is within the jurisdictional limit of the applicable state), and then generates a demand letter, creates the filing documents, offers information on how to serve the suit, and even generates suggested scripts and questions that users can leverage at the hearing.
The new app doesn’t stop there – DoNotPay also recently acquired Visabot to assist in the application of green cards and other visa filings. While, Visabot was a pay app for some of its services, Browder is offering the former services, like all DoNotPay services, for free.
Does DoNotPay violate state laws on the unauthorized practice of law? Good question and one that is not yet resolved. My thought is that, if the information DoNotPay provides is targeted information that is freely accessible in the public forum, albeit in in a guided interface that helps users cut through the swathes of irrelevant, confusing or downright unhelpful information, perhaps that is not the same as providing legal advice. However, as I haven’t used the app myself yet, I cannot comment on whether any of the tools cross the line. I also cannot comment on the accuracy of the information provided by the app. Browder certainly maintains that he has been addressing concerns and making updates to improve information and to ensure compliance with applicable laws.
Some may cynically claim that apps like this make an already litigious system worse. However, the fact remains that those who are most likely to use such an app are most likely the under-served segments of legal services in our society. Perhaps opening those doors a little wider may encourage some positive behaviors on the part of institutions that have benefited from that lack of access. Particularly in the area of immigration these days, such assistance, in any form, may be vital and life altering.
It is not clear how long the app will remain free. For now, Browder is seed funded with $1.1 million from investors and micro donations from customers. Browder’s stated intentions is that basic legal services will remain free, but inevitably, he may need to add charges for some services in order to keep the app going.
You can download the app yourself on the App Store – feel free to report back on your experience. Would love to know how our new Robot overlords handle the complexities of small claims court.