A Chatbot Designed to Make Legal Advice Available to Anyone

Dave Johnson

It may be a stretch to describe DoNotPay as a “robot lawyer,”—it won’t appear in court on your behalf or argue your case in front of a cyborg judge—but the free online chatbot does dole out legal advice on a spectrum of topics.

After getting its start helping Brits—as well as residents in New York City and Seattle—contest parking tickets, earlier this summer creator Joshua Browder expanded DoNotPay to address more serious legal issues in all 50 states. “I wanted to help fight homelessness, so I added that, as well as helping refugees find asylum,” he says.

Browder is now a computer science student at Stanford, but he hadn’t even attended freshman orientation when the first version of DoNotPay made its online debut, inspired by a parking ticket Browder received in high school. “I built it in about three months between high school and starting college,” Browder says. “I never expected it to go viral; I made it for myself and a few friends.”

Since that time, DoNotPay has become a go-to resource in the U.S. and the U.K. Browder estimates that he’s helped defeat about 375,000 tickets in the bot’s first two years. Here’s the premise: After landing on the DoNotPay site, you simply enter in plain English what your problem is: “I got a parking ticket.” The chatbot knows more or less where you are located, and responds with some options, such as “dispute a parking ticket in Los Angeles” or “dispute a parking ticket in San Jose.” From there, the bot ascertains what actually happened. Was there no visible signage, or perhaps the signage was contradictory? Maybe you parked there because of a medical emergency. After selecting the most appropriate option, DoNotPay asks you for details of the incident and then generates a letter customized for your specific infraction, which you can print and submit to the court. The bot delivers location-specific advice, so if you’re asking a question from New York, you’ll get a different answer than the same question posted from California.

Using DoNotPay is not the same as retaining a lawyer—it’s more of a service that enables a DIY approach to legal representation—but it does help level the playing field. In small cities, it can cost at least $200 to hire a lawyer to dispute a traffic ticket; in larger cities like New York and Los Angeles, the cost is twice that. Even online legal defense services charge fees, which may put them out of reach for low-income individuals. The DoNotPay creator has so far been adamant that no matter how the tool develops, it will always remain free for users.

Browder developed DoNotPay’s artificial intelligence from scratch, but the most difficult part of the project was wading through the source material that informs the bot’s reasoning. “I looked at hundreds of obscure government forms and documents,” he says. “I knew that if you asked the right questions, you could guide people through the legal process.” Not a lawyer himself, Browder crowdsourced help from the legal community to develop the logic DoNotPay would use, as well as the answers that the chatbot would deliver to users.

Today, DoNotPay can help resolve legal problems that fall into one of a thousand categories, comprising a half-dozen broad areas of the law. With the input of volunteer lawyers, the chatbot has learned about housing, for instance, and can now find government housing for eligible users, or assist tenants with common landlord and property issues. It offers help in consumer rights (“everything from buying faulty goods at Wal-Mart to executing certain kinds of contracts,” Browder says), employment law (think discrimination and sexual harassment issues), airline travel (disputes around delayed and canceled flights are common), and credit and bankruptcy. “DoNotPay won’t help you declare bankruptcy,” Browder says, “but it can help you fight creditors after you declare, and help keep them off your back.”

Still, at this point using DoNotPay can be frustrating. The bot has the look and feel of something developed on a high schooler’s budget. The site doesn’t even have its own domain, for example—instead, DoNotPay has a cumbersome URL that’s impossible to commit to memory and is best Googled whenever you happen to need it.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the chatbot is that it’s not especially good at chatting. It only responds to a small array of carefully chosen keywords, so it can be hard to get the help you need instantly. If you don’t phrase your question properly, DoNotPay typically recommends sending your question in via email. A response is promised within 24 hours. Otherwise, don’t look to the current incarnation of DoNotPay for context clues. Like the very first version of Google, DoNotPay is little more than a single text field into which you pose your question. There’s no other help (or even “about” information) on the site. If you want to contact DoNotPay support, you can do that via Facebook and Twitter.

Unsurprisingly, human lawyers are not sold on the idea of automating their profession. Evan Walker, a personal injury attorney in La Jolla, California, points out that “bots didn’t attend law school or pass the bar, so their knowledge is untested.”

Braden Perry, a Kansas City-based attorney, agrees. “Bots like DoNotPay serve a purpose for some issues,” he says. “They can help address things like signage and speed limits for traffic tickets, for example. But they’re limited to purely objective data.” But he maintains that other aspects of the law, such as contract review and formation, is still worth the price of an attorney.

Browder has acknowledged the legal community might not be thrilled with his product. In July he told The Verge, “The legal industry is more than a 200 billion dollar industry, but I am excited to make the law free… Some of the biggest law firms can’t be happy!”

Recently, DoNotPay has made headlines with what Browder describes as “the first fully automated lawsuit.” In the wake of the recent massive Equifax breach—in which the credit reporting company exposed 143 million users’ personal information through a hack—DoNotPay can help you take Equifax to small claims court in your state, where awards can range from $2,500 to $25,000 depending on where you live. The process to kick off the suit takes literally seconds: provide your name and address to DoNotPay, and it quickly completes the proper paperwork for your state, which you simply need to sign and then “serve” to Equifax via your local small claims court, where fees are typically low and attorney representation is not required. Browder says that challenging Equifax in small claims court generally won’t affect your ability to take part in the inevitable class action lawsuit.

Like the original inspiration for DoNotPay—a parking ticket—Browder added the Equifax feature because he was personally affected by hack. “It was so upsetting to me—to know how basic of a mistake they made in protecting all of our personal information—that I wanted to help everyone else.”

But Browder himself is a little bearish on results. “The honest appraisal is that if you have suffered real damages from the hack, then this is an excellent approach. But if you haven’t been the victim of credit card fraud, the court isn’t likely to award you anything.” That said, the barrier to entry is low—the paperwork is free and takes but 5 minutes to create—allowing those who have murky or hard-to-prove fraudulent charges to at least try to hold Equifax accountable.

What’s the future of DoNotPay? Browder hints that it won’t remain a fairly anonymous website forever. “DoNotPay is a testing ground for a more sophisticated product that I’m working on now,” he says. Exactly what that product might look like, Browder isn’t saying—but it’s clear his goal is not changing. “My overall mission is to make the law free for all Americans. You shouldn’t have to spend hundreds of dollars for simple legal guidance or to get access to a document.”