Phia Group


Phia Group Media

Robotic Lawyers – the Future of Small Claims Courts?

By: David Ostrowsky

A couple months ago, Forbes magazine published a story hypothesizing five professions that could be eliminated by Artificial Intelligence over the next decade: factory workers, couriers, investment analysts, customer service reps, and security guards. It sounds farfetched, but could “small claims attorney” also join the dreaded list in the not-too-distant future? An intrepid startup, DoNotPay, which bills itself as “the world's first robot lawyer,” has designs on such a development—and perhaps even bigger things—coming to fruition.

Next month, at an undisclosed court location, this first-ever robot attorney, the brainchild of DoNotPay CEO and founder Joshua Browder, a Stanford University-educated computer scientist, will assist a defendant in arguing a traffic ticket for speeding. The robotic legal counsel will run on a smartphone, absorb court arguments in real-time, and relay instructions to the defendant wearing headphones—a device that is currently prohibited in the vast majority of courtrooms. The defendant, in turn, will only repeat to the magistrate what the AI dictates into their earpiece and if the subsequent ruling proves unfavorable to the defendant, DoNotPay has pledged to cover any fines, according to Browder.

Perhaps early 2000s hit movies I, Robot and Wall-E weren’t so fiction-based after all.

In all seriousness, if DoNotPay continues to gain traction in the legal field—this would require greater leniency for technology to be permitted in courtrooms across America—the robots could very well present a cost-saving alternative to high-priced living and breathing attorneys for many cash-strapped Americans seeking legal defense. (According to a 2017 report issued by the American Bar Association, approximately 80 percent of low-income individuals cannot afford legal assistance.) In fact, Browder has gone on record stating that his ultimate plan is to make the $200 billion legal profession free for consumers. A lofty goal and frightening prospect for many, indeed.

Initially launched in 2015 as a chatbot providing legal counsel to consumers grappling with late fees or fines—the company has released templates helping people appeal parking tickets or ask for refunds from airlines and generated a bot that can negotiate bills with companies like Comcast—DoNotPay is poised to enter a court of law because the machine has been schooled on case law covering a vast spectrum of matters while conditioned to adhere to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. (Browder was quoted in a recent New York Post article as saying, “We’re trying to minimize our legal liability. And it’s not good if it actually twists facts and is too manipulative.”) Further, the AI app’s software has been finetuned so that it does not automatically respond to everything it hears in court, but rather synthesizes the arguments presented before instructing the client how to proceed.

Although DoNotPay’s ostensible mission and catchy motto—”fight corporations, beat bureaucracy and sue anyone at the press of a button”—sound inspiring, the technology obviously has certain limitations. It can’t read body language or make lightning-quick strategic decisions. Meanwhile, DoNotPay, essentially unlicensed legal representation, would likely be deemed an unauthorized practice of law in the eyes of state courts. 

But, if nothing else, DoNotPay promises to nudge our collective imagination … while causing a few jitters along the way.