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A robot was scheduled to argue in court, then came the jail threats

Joshua Browder's artificial intelligence startup, DoNotPay, planned to have an AI-powered bot argue on behalf of a defendant in a case next month, but he says threats from bar associations have made him drop the effort.
Provided by Joshua Browder
Joshua Browder's artificial intelligence startup, DoNotPay, planned to have an AI-powered bot argue on behalf of a defendant in a case next month, but he says threats from bar associations have made him drop the effort.

A British man who planned to have a "robot lawyer" help a defendant fight a traffic ticket has dropped the effort after receiving threats of possible prosecution and jail time.

Joshua Browder, the CEO of the New York-based startup DoNotPay, created a way for people contesting traffic tickets to use arguments in court generated by artificial intelligence.

Here's how it was supposed to work: The person challenging a speeding ticket would wear smart glasses that both record court proceedings and dictate responses into the defendant's ear from a small speaker. The system relied on a few leading AI text generators, including ChatGPT and DaVinci.

The first-ever AI-powered legal defense was set to take place in California on Feb. 22, but not anymore.

As word got out, an uneasy buzz began to swirl among various state bar officials, according to Browder. He says angry letters began to pour in.

"Multiple state bars have threatened us," Browder said. "One even said a referral to the district attorney's office and prosecution and prison time would be possible."

In particular, Browder said one state bar official noted that the unauthorized practice of law is a misdemeanor in some states punishable up to six months in county jail.

"Even if it wouldn't happen, the threat of criminal charges was enough to give it up," he said. "The letters have become so frequent that we thought it was just a distraction and that we should move on."

State bar organizations license and regulate attorneys, as a way to ensure people hire lawyers who understand the law.

Browder refused to cite which state bar in particular sent letters, and what official made the threat of possible prosecution, saying his startup, DoNotPay, is under investigation by multiple state bars, including California's.

In a statement, State Bar of California Chief Trial Counsel George Cardona declined to comment on the probe into DoNotPay but said the organization has a duty to investigative possible instances of unauthorized practice of law.

"We regularly let potential violators know that they could face prosecution in civil or criminal court, which is entirely up to law enforcement," Cardona said in a statement.

Leah Wilson, the State Bar of California's executive director, told NPR that there has been a recent surge in technology-based legal representation that has emerged to fill a void in affordable legal advice.

"In 2023, we are seeing well-funded, unregulated providers rushing into the market for low-cost legal representation, raising questions again about whether and how these services should be regulated," Wilson said.

Even if the use of AI in court was not being challenged, some observers have questioned just how effective DoNotPay's AI tools would be for people in need of legal services, with some having mixed to shoddy results attempting to use its basic features.

Browder has been known for drumming up attention with stunts. Earlier this month, he claimed on Twitter that the company would pay any lawyer $1 million to argue in front of the U.S. Supreme Court wearing AirPods that would pipe AI-generated arguments from its "robot lawyer."

Founded in 2015, DoNotPay has raised $28 million, including funding from prominent venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz, according to analytics firm PitchBook.

Pivoting away from AI legal defense amid threats

Instead of trying to help those accused of traffic violations use AI in the courtroom, Browder said DoNotPay will train its focus on assisting people dealing with expensive medical bills, unwanted subscriptions and issues with credit reporting agencies.

Browder also still hopes it is not the end of the road for AI in the courtroom.

"The truth is, most people can't afford lawyers," he said. "This could've shifted the balance and allowed people to use tools like ChatGPT in the courtroom that maybe could've helped them win cases."

The future of robot lawyers faces uncertainty for another reason that is far simpler than the bar officials' existential questions: courtroom rules.

Recording audio during a live legal proceeding is not permitted in federal court and is often prohibited in state courts. The AI tools developed by DoNotPay, which remain completely untested in actual courtrooms, require recording audio of arguments in order for the machine-learning algorithm to generate responses.

"I think calling the tool a 'robot lawyer' really riled a lot of lawyers up," Browder said. "But I think they're missing the forest for the trees. Technology is advancing and courtroom rules are very outdated."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.