A Bad Week for DoNotPay and Its Robot Lawyer, But It Should Not Reflect on Self-Help Legal Tech

So the publicity stunt of the robot lawyer sneaking into court is no more, as Joshua Browder, founder and CEO of the self-help legal site DoNotPay, yesterday pulled the plug on the prank, saying he had received threats from bar officials of prosecution and even imprisonment.

That news followed a scathing series of tweets by a woman who tried out several of DoNotPay’s self-help tools, only to conclude that they were effectively smoke and mirrors, in some cases getting the law wrong, in others failing even to deliver the promised product .

On February 22nd at 1.30PM, history will be made. For the first time ever, a robot will represent someone in a US courtroom.

DoNotPay AI will whisper in someone’s ear exactly what to say. We will release the results and share more after it happens. Wish us luck!

— Joshua Browder (@jbrowder1) January 21, 2023

In the case of the robot lawyer, it is hard to fathom how Browder could have been surprised to receive threats from bar officials. After all, the plan to send an unrepresented litigant into court wearing AirPods through which the litigant would receive instructions on what to say almost certainly would have violated court rules. Most courts ban electronic devices in courtrooms, and it would have been hard to overlook a litigant wearing AirPods.

Good Morning! Bad news: after receiving threats from State Bar prosecutors, it seems likely they will put me in jail for 6 months if I follow through with bringing a robot lawyer into a physical courtroom. DoNotPay is postponing our court case and sticking to consumer rights:

— Joshua Browder (@jbrowder1) January 25, 2023

And then there were the impractical logistics of the stunt. No judge I’ve ever appeared before would sit by patiently during the time delay as the litigant awaited the next set of instructions from the robot lawyer. I envision a TV news broadcast live where the anchor asks a question and there is a 20-second delay as the satellite relays the question to the reporter in the field.

And then, of course, there was the whole issue of unauthorized practice of law, which apparently came as a surprise to Browder.

To be clear, Browder has not provided any details about these threats or identified their source. I messaged him yesterday asking for details on which state’s prosecutors made the threats and the nature of what they said. He has not responded.

All we know is that yesterday he tweeted that he was pulling the plug on the prank.

Perhaps even worse news for DoNotPay came in the form of a scathing series of tweets from a woman named Kathryn Tewson, who I believe is a commercial litigation paralegal at a boutique law firm (if this LinkedIn profile is the same person).

I’ve been going in pretty hard on @DoNotPay and @jbrowder1 for the past couple of days, and I’ve had a lot of people defending the service, saying that it could be a real boon to those who can’t otherwise afford legal aid.

— Kathryn Tewson (@KathrynTewson) January 24, 2023

Having been critical of DoNotPay and having heard from others defending the company, she wanted to “give it a fair shake,” she tweeted. So she signed up and “took the service for a little whirl.”

I encourage you to read her full thread, but suffice to say, the results were not pretty. She tried three DoNotPay services: Defamation Demand Letter, Divorce Settlement Agreement, and Sue Anyone in Small Claims Court.

Starting with the Defamation Demand Letter, she filled out the required information and pressed “next” to see the letter, only to receive nothing but a progress bar saying that her demand letter would be ready in an hour.

“That . . . seems a little slow for something that is supposed to be able to respond to a judge and give instructions in real time,” she wrote.

She then tried the Divorce Settlement Agreement. This time, after providing the required information, she got a progress bar that said the agreement would be ready in eight hours.

“Y’all, eight hours seems like a really, really long time for an AI to need to generate a document,” she accurately observed.

Finally, she tried the app for suing someone in small claims court. She was put off right away by the app’s promise to generate court filings and give her a script to read in court. “I mean that’s the practice of law,” she wrote. “It’s just.”

She encountered numerous UX issues and nonsensical prompts as she moved through the app, this time actually ending up with a PDF. But her evaluation: “There is literally nothing AI about this at all. This is a straight-up plug-and-chug document wizard, and it is not well done at all.”

As for the other documents you purchased. When they hit their one- and eight-hour time limits, the clock icon flipped and said it would need more time.

There is literally nothing AI about this at all. This is a straight-up plug-and-chug document wizard, and it is not well done at all. pic.twitter.com/CCjn1FgPr6

— Kathryn Tewson (@KathrynTewson) January 24, 2023

Her conclusion from all this: Either the tools are badly broken or “this isn’t AI at all,” but an app that collects information “and then hands it to a human to go find the relevant law.”

The second, though — and I find this much more likely based on the one-hour and eight-hour timelines given — is that this isn’t AI at all; that @DoNotPay collects the information from the prompt and then hands it to a human to go find the relevant law and customize the doc.

— Kathryn Tewson (@KathrynTewson) January 24, 2023

Soon after Tewson posted these tweets, Browder took to Twitter to announce he was removing the three apps she tested from DoNotPay.

I think decisiveness when one is taking the wrong direction is key.

We are removing them from DoNotPay, effective immediately, to focus solely on consumer rights. We are also dramatically improving the UX and are working 18 hour days to make it happen.

— Joshua Browder (@jbrowder1) January 25, 2023

“I have realized that non-consumer rights legal products (eg defamation demand letters, divorce agreements and others), which have very little usage, are a distraction,” he said.

“We are removing them from DoNotPay, effective immediately, to focus solely on consumer rights. We are also dramatically improving the UX and are working 18 hour days to make it happen.”

The Implications for Self-Help Legal Tech

I don’t know what’s really going on behind the curtain at DoNotPay. I interviewed Browder way back in 2018 for my LawNext podcast and found him to be sincere in his mission to use technology to help consumers solve common legal problems. Perhaps his pivot to focusing on consumer rights is the best move, and I hope he continues to develop products that help consumers get results.

However, my concern is that this whole series of episodes has made Browder come across as a sort of PT Barnum of legal self-help tools and that it has provided critics of these tools with fodder to proclaim, “We told you so.”

Whatever Browder was thinking when he promised to send a robot lawyer to court, the fact is it was little more than a publicity stunt that would have had little impact on the very real need to develop tools to address the access-to-justice crisis in law.

And, further, the fact is that there are many companies and organizations that are developing very real and viable tools to help self-represented litigants and others who do not have access to legal help.

There is a very real crisis in the United States (and, for that matter, in virtually every country) of people who are not able to get help with legal problems. In many cases, these problems are severe, threatening loss of housing or danger from domestic abuse.

The only way we will ever address that crisis is with the assistance of tech. Let’s hope the whole robot lawyer sideshow does not create a diversion from that goal.

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