Supplied by Joshua Browder
A British man who intended to have a “robot lawyer” help a defendant fight a traffic ticket has abandoned the attempt after being threatened with possible prosecution and jail.
Joshua Browder, the New York-based CEO of the startup DoNotPay, created a way for people disputing traffic fines to use arguments generated by artificial intelligence in court.
Here’s how it should work: The person contesting a speeding ticket would carry smart glasses that both record court proceedings and dictate answers into the defendant’s ear through a small speaker. The system was powered by some of the leading AI text generators, including ChatGPT and DaVinci.
The first-ever AI-powered legal defense would take place in California on February 22, but not anymore.
When word got out, an uncomfortable buzz began swirling among several state bar officials, according to Browder. He says angry letters started pouring in.
“Several national 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.”
In particular, Browder said a state bar official noted that in some states the unauthorized practice of the law is a felony punishable by up to six months in prison.
“Even if it didn’t happen, the threat of criminal prosecution was enough to give it up,” he said. “The letters have become so frequent that we thought it was just a distraction and we should move on.”
National bar associations license and regulate lawyers as a way to make sure people hire lawyers who understand the law.
Browder declined to cite which state bar associations specifically sent letters and which official threatened possible prosecution, saying his startup, DoNotPay, is under investigation by multiple state bar associations, including California’s.
In a statement, the Chief Trial Counsel for the State Bar of California, George Cardona, said the organization has a duty to investigate potential cases of unauthorized practice.
“We regularly notify potential offenders that they can be prosecuted in either 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 there has been a recent surge in cheap, poor legal representation that the association has launched a new crackdown on, though she won’t say whether DoNotPay was part of this effort. .
“In 2023, we will see well-funded, unregulated providers enter the market for low-cost legal representation, raising questions about whether and how these services should be regulated,” she said.
Turning away from legal defenses against AI in the midst of threats
Rather than trying to help those charged with traffic violations use AI in court, Browder said DoNotPay will turn its focus to helping people dealing with expensive medical bills, unwanted subscriptions and credit reporting agency issues.
Browder also still hopes it’s not the end of the road for AI in the courtroom.
“The truth is most people can’t afford a lawyer,” he said. “This could have shifted the balance and allowed people to use tools like ChatGPT in court that might have helped them win cases.”
The future of robot lawyers faces uncertainty for another reason much simpler than the existential questions of the Bar Association: courtroom rules.
Recording audio during a live legal proceeding is not allowed in federal court and is often prohibited in state courts. The AI tools developed by DoNotPay require audio recording of arguments for the machine learning algorithm to generate responses.
“I think the fact that the tool was called a ‘robot lawyer’ really misled a lot of lawyers,” Browder said. “But I think they are missing the wood for the trees. Technology is advancing and the courtroom rules are very outdated.”
DoNotPay has raised $28 million, including funding from leading venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, according to analytics firm PitchBook, which estimates DoNotPay is worth about $210 million.