Three weeks ago, Tech CEO Josh Browder offered $1 million for anyone who lets their chatbot represent a case in the Supreme Court. Yesterday he announced that his company DoNotPay is completely withdrawing from the legal services business and instead focusing on consumer protection products.
“Bad news: after receiving threats from prosecutors, if I bring a robot lawyer into a physical courtroom, they will likely put me in jail for 6 months,” he said tweeted of a scheduled traffic court appearance in February, where a lawyer agreed to allow the chatbot to give him lines through a handset. “DoNotPay is postponing our lawsuit and upholding consumer rights.”
It’s an abrupt about-face for the company that bills itself as “The World’s First Robot Lawyer” and swore it to its founder “Giving consumers $200 billion worth of the legal profession for free.” And it comes after a month of intense reluctance after Browder announced its decision to add “live” court appearances to its site’s longstanding legal offerings, which preparing divorce documents, wills and powers of attorney, as well as various consumer-oriented services, such as breaking cables or reporting potholes to local authorities.
This week, the site’s document practice also received some pretty negative coverage, when Seattle-based investigator and paralegal Kathryn Tewson took the site out for a round in a viral report Twitter thread this became a post on TechDirt. Tewson, a prolific contributor to (which is of) Right Twitter, says her interest was piqued when Browder tweeted that his AI had issued a subpoena.
“I asked, ‘Who signed this subpoena?’ And he didn’t answer,” she told ATL. “So I chased him a bit and he still hasn’t responded and then I noticed he deleted the tweet. So I asked, ‘Why did you delete your tweet about the subpoena?’ and he blocked me.”
So Tewson threw down her $36 for a two-month subscription and called Browder’s bots to write a defamation letter, a divorce settlement, and a simple breach of contract letter.
“I did not receive either of the first two documents I created and received the last one immediately and I realized that the other two documents promised personalization with relevant legal information based on facts I gave them in the prompts had, and the one I didn’t,” Tewson continued. “And then I got REALLY suspicious because the timers they gave me were for 1 hour and 8 hours. These are human time frames, not computer time frames.”
Browder then unblocked Tewson, telling her that her account had been flagged for suspected spurious activity and that he would refund her subscription fee. She never got the other documents.
Browder’s customers can hardly complain when his bots are stopped by real lawyers. But if he’s promised investors he has code that can do the job, and he actually does it mechanically, that could get…problematic.
Browder told NPR yesterday that the withdrawal was in response to threats from several state bar associations that he would be sued for tort.
“Several state bar associations have threatened us,” he said. “One even said a referral to the prosecutor’s office and arraignment and imprisonment would be possible.”
Obviously, Browder understands that he touched the third rail when he talked about sending his bots to court, even through proxies. But in an interview with Fast Company, the CEO made it clear that the barrier is industry protectionism, Not a defect in the technology as it now exists.
“There is no attorney who will stand up for a $500 refund. And that’s what we should really focus on; so they don’t follow us because of the other stuff, which is a distraction,” he told FC.
And indeed, there is a strong case for giving the average consumer the ability to defend low-value claims. But perhaps the person best placed to fill that need should be someone who understands that legal practice outside of The Hague is about more than just filling in the blanks and hitting print.
And Browder is definitely not that guy:
There are many good attorneys doing great work, like human rights attorneys and Supreme Court attorneys, but there are others who charge hundreds of dollars on billboards for copying and pasting documents. And we want to replace them.
The long-term goal is that we want to automate all consumer rights. The average person should not need to see a lawyer for any reason unless there is a serious issue like they are accused of breaking into someone’s home. A normal person shouldn’t even need to know what a lawyer does.
Well, we’re assuming things are going up and down with DoNotPay. But if not, we suspect Browder will summon a robot lawyer to protect his interests. I don’t want to waste hundreds of dollars an hour on copypasta, do I?
The world’s first lawyer robot isn’t a lawyer, and I’m not sure if it’s even a robot [TechDirt]
Why legal services chatbot DoNotPay abandons its idea of bringing a robot to justice [Fast Company]