In the last article of early July, we mentioned the rise of virtual offices and websites that offer legal services. One of those, www.donotpay.co.uk, has drawn a lot of attention, recently. The website is the brain child of nineteen-year-old Joshua Browder, who refers to it as the world’s first robot lawyer. He created the website after he received more than thirty unfair traffic fines in London in just a few months, and wanted to appeal them. The website is designed to make that process as easy as answering a few questions, either by filling out a form, or in a chatroom. The website then files the appeal on your behalf, for free.

That Browder chose a chatroom solution that uses a chat bot shouldn’t come as a surprise. Indeed, experts have been predicting that the use of chat bots to interact with customers would constitute one of the biggest new technology shifts. After all, chatting apps are extremely popular, and offer users a familiar interface. Chances are you’ve already used a chat room to interact with IT support services or with companies’ customer services. The natural next step was that chat bots would get involved to automate and streamline the process. Tests have shown that the artificial intelligence used in chat bots has sufficiently matured to pass the Turing Test, i.e., the person interacting with the chat bot does not realise he or she is interacting with a chat bot. In the US, e.g., chat bots are already being used successfully in fast food chains to process online orders. Or you can just call an Uber through Facebook Messenger. Chat bots can also get you news headlines, weather forecasts, or traffic information. IT companies like Slack.com, e.g., already use a chat bot (called slackbot) for their online customer support. Microsoft acknowledged the potential of chat bots when it started working in March on tools that allow you to create your own chat bot on Skype.

With DoNotPay, the first legal chat bot is now a fact, too. When the website started offering Londoners an easy way to appeal unfair traffic fines for free, it did so with huge success: in less than two years’ time, 250 000 appeals were submitted and 160 000 of those were successful. As a result, approximately four million USD worth in parking tickets did not have to be paid. By now, people in New York can use the service as well. Seattle is next, and South Africa may follow as well. And that’s not all. Given its success, the website intends to extend the services it offers. Apart from appealing parking tickets, the website can now also assist you in claiming compensation if your flight was delayed.

In an interview with Fortune Magazine Catherine Bamford, a former lawyer in Leeds who advises law firms and corporate legal departments on automation, underlined how important this evolution is. “Access to justice for the non-wealthy is a serious concern. Legal aid budgets have been slashed in recent years. With helper bots like DoNotPay, some willing lawyers and expert programmers, legal advice could become cheap and accessible to everyone via the Internet. This is a real step in the right direction.”

The DoNotPay website wasn’t Joshua Browder’s first endeavour. The second-year IT student at Stanford, indeed has a nice track record already. As a thirteen-year-old he created an app for ‘Pret-a-manger,’ a sandwich chain, that became so popular that the company adopted it as its official app. He also contacted several human rights organizations offering his services for free. Some, like Freedom House (a human rights watchdog) and International Bridges for Justice accepted his offer.

We are likely to encounter more and more intelligent chat bots in the near future. And they won’t be limited to just support departments or customer services. One startup, x.ai, is already working on a virtual personal assistant, and uses the built-in chat bot to interact with people, e.g., to set up appointments, suggesting possible times, etc. It’s probably just a matter of time before law firms start using virtual legal assistants. In fact, IBM already offers a virtual legal research assistant. And that’s just the beginning. We can expect artificial intelligence aspects to be integrated in the user interfaces of legal software, replacing the more traditional wizards. And Law still is a field that deals with a lot of formalities. Robot lawyers that assist people with those, e.g., could be really useful, and could make things more transparent and accessible.

So, should lawyers be worried that legal robots will be taking over their jobs? Not really! After all, with each new technology arise new opportunities for lawyers, too. Take, e.g., liability questions: what if the robot lawyer makes a mistake, or if your virtual legal assistant sends out the wrong information? As long as there are legal conflicts, the need for lawyers will remain. (And that’s a good thing, because otherwise we would be out of job, too).

 

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