A chatbot that’s taking on the legal industry—and pissing off a few lawyers in the process—began with an 18-year-old’s driving woes.
Two years ago, Joshua Browder was learning to drive around his home in the UK and racking up parking tickets in the process. “I was a really terrible driver,” he told me in a phone conversation. “I got about 30 parking tickets in two years.” He had to figure out a way to fight these tickets without blowing his whole teenage budget on legal fees.
He started pouring through archives and documents looking for the most common reasons parking tickets were dismissed, and realized quickly that it’s pretty easy to turn the city’s messy regulations and ticket-administering against itself. Before long, Browder became a master at battling traffic tickets. He made a website to help his friends and family fight them, too.
That’s what ultimately inspired DoNotPay, a chatbot Browder designed to take on all the annoying little (and sometimes life-altering) legal issues that come up in life, like parking tickets (the bot has successfully fought 160,000 fines and counting). The website acts as a free resource for people looking for more information on their legal options: Just enter your problem in the text field, and a bot walks you through choices depending on your location and situation.
Building on its origins as a a ticket fighter, Browder is now expanding DoNotPay to help walk people through the steps to sue Equifax after a security breach leaked the personal information of just about everyone in the county. It’s currently available in the US, Canada, and the UK.
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Browder, who is currently enrolled at Stanford University, is working on expanding DoNotPay into a full-service small claims robot lawyer, tackling everything from divorce paperwork, landlord-tenant disputes, family leave requests, airline compensation, refugee status applications, discrimination reports, and more. The scope of his aspirations has made some human lawyers a little nervous.
“Unfortunately, lots of lawyers are very protectionist and use the regulations to stop people like me,” Browder said. “A lot of them say it’s impossible… Some of them say I should be put in jail for unauthorized practice of law.”
But some, like those at law firm Greylock, where he was entrepreneur-in-residence, and IBM’s Watson, are more open-minded. “[They] realize that chatbots aren’t going to argue in court anytime soon, so they should make the easy stuff free for everyone, so they can focus on the higher level work.”
Aside from developing DoNotPay, Browder has lent his talents to Freedom House, a prestigious American NGO that advocates for political freedom and human rights around the world. When he was still in high school, he developed an iPhone app for Freedom House that collates the “freedom ratings” of countries based on metrics like internet and press freedom. He also worked with Switzerland-based NGO International Bridges to Justice to develop apps for lawyers in Africa.
Now that he’s in college, DoNotPay is Browder’s main focus. Keeping the service free for everyone, forever, is essential to this project’s survival, he told me. People don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars in legal fees to submit a simple claim, and he believes they shouldn’t have to.
“It’s almost like the people are starting to realize that non-lawyers can have an impact in the industry,” he said, “which is really exciting to me.”
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