In 2015, British entrepreneur—and current Stanford junior Joshua Browder—launched DoNotPay, a site offering consumers free help fighting parking tickets. DoNotPay is a chatbot and, using artificial intelligence, asks its pro-bono clients a series of questions and plugs those answers into a form letter template. Then, a pdf is available to save, email, or print.
DoNotPay’s parking ticket success led Browder to an ambitious goal to provide legal help of all kinds – for free – and on Wednesday, DoNotPay is adding about 1,000 consumer categories to its portfolio for all 50 states.
Some of the matters relate to legal claims, but much of the help is simply with writing strongly-worded lawyerly letters for things like formulating requests for compensation from airlines, requests to landlords, reporting discrimination, filing for maternity leave, dealing with defective products, or disputing a credit report entry or credit card charge.
The bot’s surge forward took about a year. Around eight months ago, Browder managed to automate the creation of bots by creating a code-less backend he could use. “I could go from building a bot in a month to building it in an hour,” he told Yahoo Finance. With a tech-free way to make bots, Browder managed to recruit four lawyers on a volunteer and part-time basis, via Twitter, to lend a hand.
Even with the lawyers and two friends helping, the process of jumping from handling a few tasks to 1,000 was delayed due to Browder’s student status. “I try to do this on the side, so it took a year when it should have taken two months,” he said.
How bots can handle legal issues
Browder and his lawyers found that two categories of situations were ripe for DoNotPay’s bots. “The first category is just filling in documents to ensure you can send something off—filling in a PDF or automating a letter,” he said. “The second thing is getting people to the right document and ensuring they’re eligible. Whenever there’s a thing when there’s a huge decision tree, then a document, that works particularly well.”
Of course, there are significant limitations of the platform currently, like going to court. “We tried to go with things that are both legally accurate and needed,” said Browder. “Obviously, we didn’t try to do everything. The bot doesn’t help you get divorced, for instance.”
Disrupting the legal industry
As an entrepreneur looking to disrupt the legal industry, Browder is very critical of lawyers and legal services that too are often cost-prohibitive, shutting out those who can’t afford to pay fees necessary to escalate a small consumer complaint.
“I think [DoNotPay] shows that the law in terms of legal tech is really broken. I’m so surprised this hasn’t been done,” he said. “There’s a huge stagnation in legal technology.”
There are a few factors that have made DoNotPay the first of its kind. Partners at law firms may not have significant incentive to innovate, and raising venture capital is challenging due to the structure of law firms, said Browder. Not to mention there are regulations that carefully control the sale of legal advice. But since DoNotPay is free, it manages to sidestep the issue.
However, this does make monetization a challenge, limited to revenue from sources other than subscriptions or fees—ads for instance. To date Browder has not monetized his service, but wouldn’t be against it so long as it stays free.
After the rollout of the new functionality, Browder plans on tackling other issues like declaring bankruptcy. “It’s actually really expensive to go bankrupt,” he said. Browder also noted that wills are “really interesting,” but that he was holding off as some friends of his had already begun reinventing estate planning with an app called FreeWill, which supplies “totally legal” wills.
Browder may be abutting the limits of a simple fill-in-the-blank Mad Libs-style approach at dealing with the law, but with machine learning and ascendancy of artificial intelligence, it seems like a foregone conclusion that legal services from robots will have a large effect on the industry, and in a big way. If a simple bot in just three cities beat 375,000 parking tickets—likely saving over $10 million—even Browder’s rollout to all 50 states should make a splash.
Correction: An earlier version identified an incorrect “FreeWill” app. The one in question pertains to the U.S., not England and Wales.
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