You will recall the robot lawyer1 that was designed to fight parking tickets actually turned out to be pretty good at it, racking up an impressive 64% win rate when appealing tickets. The parking ticket service had previously only been available in New York and London, but its creator, 19-year-old wunderkind Joshua Browder, reported on Twitter that it rolls out to Seattle this week.
Browder’s ambitions aren’t limited to parking ticket battles. A few months ago, he was aspiring to make the bot assist people to obtain compensation for delayed flights, and that is now up and running. Answer a few questions about the details of your trip and the length of the delay, and it kicks out a demand to the airline responsible. (Sadly this only applies overseas where the law compels compensation.)
Both of these things seem great, but they don’t quite get into territory lawyers should be deeply concerned about, job loss-wise, only because most people probably don’t hire lawyers to beat a parking ticket or get a few hundred dollars back from an airline. Browder’s latest project, though, could minimize or eliminate the need for attorney assistance in situations that are both regrettably commonplace and tend to impact people who can’t afford lawyers: evictions and homelessness.
In Browder’s native Great Britain, government housing is available for the newly homeless, but people […] are required to write and file their own application letter. Without deep knowledge of laws or the money for legal assistance, people […] are left with few resources to help them get temporary shelter.
Browder decided to extend DoNotPay’s services and offer a way to easily file for government housing without paying a cent. Users visit DoNotPay.co.uk, register, and answer questions related to their individual circumstances, such as the reason for homelessness or any critical medical conditions or disabilities. The bot automatically generates a completed application designed to maximize an applicant’s chances of getting placed in a home. For example, if a person reports to the bot that they have a mental illness, the bot will rearrange the claim letter to focus on this.
Browder has already said he’d like to roll this out in New York City, which has led to the inevitable handwringing: asking for government assistance—certainly in American and presumably in Britain—is challenging and has numerous points where people might need help in pleading their case or understanding a thicket of regulations. But the simple matter of fact here is that we know full well there aren’t enough attorneys available to provide assistance like this–particularly low- or no-cost assistance. For every 10,000 Americans living in poverty, there is less than 1 lawyer available2 to provide assistance with things like evictions.
There is no doubt that, were everyone facing an imminent eviction able to access an attorney at no cost or a cost they could bear, the results obtained by an attorney would beat a chatbot any day. But if that help is unobtainable, can we honestly say there is a downside to trying a bot? If we are going to pride ourselves on being the best at providing a service, it has to be one we can meaningfully provide. For the other things, we either need to start leaving them to the bots or figuring out how we can do better.
Yes, yes, yes, I’m perfectly aware that “robot” typically denotes something with an embodied form, while cool algorithms are actually considered “bots” but let’s face it: robot lawyer sounds cool, and the name has already stuck. ↩
This is due to many factors, of course, the most daunting of which is the fact that legal aid is typically federally funded and that funding isn’t increasing, and obviously the legal profession can’t fix that alone. ↩