Gizmos & Gadgets: DoNotPay Offers Free Legal Advice – Are Lawyers Doomed?

September 3, 2017 – Joshua Lenon is a California lawyer who recently spoke at a Stanford University FutureLaw conference. He was one of a number of presenters who talked about the rise of legal chatbots.

Lenon in his Stanford presentation argues that artificial intelligence in the form of chatbots is not a panacea for the law.  He states, “people worry that computers are going to become smart. And the truth is that computers are very stupid and they have already taken over the world.”

Lenon’s concern is chatbot lawyers are not a substitute for human lawyers. Chatbots can give bad legal advice. If a chatbot doesn’t recognize locality it may proffer legal advice that is inappropriate to jurisdiction. There is no point providing advice about the law in Ontario when the user is texting about an issue in California. And because of the nature of chatbots, the artificial intelligence uses scripts that respond to questions and answers.

Chatbots  use scripting tools. How do they work? Through the use of decision trees.

If a chatbot asks a question and the answer is “A,” it automatically loads a sequence of scripted questions or answers that logically follow.

But if the answer is “B,” then a different series of questions or answers are loaded.

This form of scripted response is used by telemarketers today. And when we receive a telephone call at home with a telemarketer on the other end of the line our first reaction is to disconnect. Yet chatbot legal sites are popping up all over the web.

One of them is DoNotPay, a free robot lawyer created by a Stanford economics and computer science student, Joshua Browder.

From the United Kingdom, Browder developed DoNotPay after he began fighting numerous traffic fines he received. He admits he is a terrible driver.

Because his research into the ticket process and his success in getting these fines quashed his friends were soon asking for advice for similar offenses. That’s when he decided to simplify everything by building a chatbot.

Browder’s bot is no longer simple. It now has expanded to cover 1,000 legal areas focusing on consumer and human rights issues with geographic coverage across all 50 U.S. states and the U.K.

What does DoNotPay do?

It helps users find, fill out, and file the right legal forms related to a wide range of disputes. It understands natural language queries so that users simply state a problem. The biggest challenge of jurisdiction, which Lenon points out as being a common failure for chatbot apps in general, is handled by DoNotPay. The app automatically verifies location during the chat so that the advice provided is specifically relevant.

Today DoNotPay covers landlord-tenant issues, maternity leave, parking tickets, and airline flight delay compensation among the 1,000 plus areas of its expertise. But Browder hopes to add more complex legal issues in the near future, such as marriage and divorce, and managing bankruptcy proceedings.

And for the moment DoNotPay remains free to all users. Eventually, however, someone will have to pay. Right now, it may be lawyers.

Back in 2016, a Deloitte study predicted that automation of the law in the U.K. would eliminate over 114,000 jobs, that’s 40% of the profession over the next two decades.

A more recent New York Times article appearing in March of this year doesn’t see the number of lawyers going down because of automation, but rather sees the impact in terms of billing hours, a decline of between 2.5 and 13% over the next five years largely covering the routine tasks of finding and filling out forms, something that DoNotPay demonstrates it can do for free.

There remains, however, an Achilles heel for chatbot apps like DoNotPay. States Lenon in his Stanford presentation, at some point, the chatbot should be asking the question, “Do you want to speak to a lawyer now?” At the moment that seems to be missing element in the script. And that states Lenon should make lawyers pretty nervous.


Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...