Provided by Joshua Browder
A British man who planned to have a “robot lawyer” help a defendant fight a traffic ticket has dropped his efforts after receiving threats of possible prosecution and jail time.
Joshua Browder, CEO of New York-based startup DoNotPay, created a way for people contesting traffic tickets to use arguments in court generated by artificial intelligence.
Here’s how it was supposed to work: The person challenging a speeding ticket would wear smart glasses that both record court proceedings and dictate answers into the ear of the accused from a small speaker. The system was powered by a few leading AI text generators, including ChatGPT and DaVinci.
The first ever AI-powered legal defense was set to take place in California on February 22, but no longer.
As word got out, an uneasy buzz began to swirl among various public bar officials, according to Browder. He says angry letters started pouring in.
“Several state bar associations have threatened us,” Browder said. “One even said a referral to the district attorney’s office and prosecution and jail time would be possible.”
Specifically, Browder said a public attorney noted that unauthorized practice of law is a misdemeanor in some states punishable by up to six months in county jail.
“Even if that wouldn’t happen, the threat of criminal charges was enough to give up,” he said. “The letters have become so frequent that we thought it was just a distraction and we should move on.”
State bar associations license and regulate lawyers, as a way to ensure that people hire lawyers who understand the law.
Browder declined to name which state bar associations sent the letter and which official threatened possible prosecution, and said his startup, DoNotPay, is under investigation by several state bar associations, including California’s.
In a statement, Chief Trial Counsel of the State Bar of California, George Cardona, said the organization has a duty to investigate possible instances of unauthorized legal practice.
“We regularly let potential violators know that they may be prosecuted in civil or criminal courts, which is entirely up to law enforcement,” Cardona said in a statement.
Leah Wilson, executive director of the State Bar of California, told NPR that there has been a recent increase in poor-quality legal representation that the association has launched a new crackdown on, though she would not comment on whether DoNotPay was part of this investigation.
“In 2023, we see well-funded, unregulated providers rushing into the affordable legal representation market, which in turn raises questions about whether and how these services should be regulated,” Wilson said.
Although the use of AI in court was not challenged, some observers have questioned how effective DoNotPay’s AI tools would be for people in need of legal services, with some having mixed to dire results trying to use its basic functions.
Pivoting away from AI legal defense amid threats
Instead of trying to help those accused of traffic violations using artificial intelligence in the courtroom, Browder said DoNotPay will train its focus on helping people dealing with expensive medical bills, unwanted subscriptions and problems with credit reporting agencies.
Browder also remains hopeful that this is not the end of the road for AI in the courtroom.
“The truth is, most people can’t afford lawyers,” he said. “This could have shifted the balance and allowed people to use tools like ChatGPT in the courtroom that might have helped them win cases.”
The future of robot lawyers faces uncertainty for another reason far simpler than the bar associations’ existential question: courtroom rules.
Audio recording during a legal proceeding is not permitted in federal court and is often prohibited in state courts. The AI tools developed by DoNotPay, which remain completely untested in actual courtrooms, require audio recordings of arguments for the machine learning algorithm to generate answers.
“I think calling the tool a ‘robot lawyer’ really pissed off a lot of lawyers,” Browder said. “But I think they’re missing the forest for the trees. Technology is moving forward and the rules of the courtroom are very outdated.”
DoNotPay has raised $28 million, including funding from prominent venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, according to research firm PitchBook, which estimates DoNotPay is worth about $210 million.