Connect: How technology is changing communication

Should We Turn the Law Over to Robots?

Automating parts of the legal process could help remove bias, unclog the courts, and foster objectivity. But is there potential for robo-lawyers to compound pre-existing issues in the legal system?

Science fiction has long shown us what a world with robot workers could look like. But today’s technology is making our future e-workers look less like Rosie from the Jetsons and more like a robo-Perry Mason. So-called robo-lawyers are introducing artificial intelligence into legal practice, creating virtual legal assistants that automate certain types of clerical work.

It was a series of parking tickets that led British entrepreneur Joshua Browder to create a robo-lawyer of his own. “It became obvious that I was copying and pasting the same appeal letter over and over again,” Browder said. “And since I couldn’t afford to pay the fines, I thought, this is something that could really easily be automated.”

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Browder’s DoNotPay is an artificial intelligence-powered chatbot that helps people in the U.S. and U.K. fill out over 1,000 of those pesky legal forms using artificial intelligence. Users type their legal issue into a search box, and during a guided conversation, DoNotPay creates legal documents tailored to the user’s location to help with issues from extending maternity leave to fighting fraudulent credit card charges. All for free. He just upgraded to enable U.S. citizens to easily file small claims court cases of up to $25,000 against Equifax in response to the recent massive data breach. Depending on uptake, this could prove to be a watershed moment in both the areas of law and AI.

“I think there are so many areas of the law where lawyers are charging hundreds of dollars for doing something that, right now, can be replaced with AI,” Browder said. He added that DoNotPay has already helped 375,000 people avoid $9.7 million in fines.

Lexis Nexis-owned Lex Machina has created another form of robo-lawyer, which mines big data from court cases to find patterns. Unfortunately, a law firm could use that information to take on only the most lucrative and winnable cases, a form of discrimination that runs counter to the objectives of the legal system. But with the right regulation and monitoring, the analysis and pattern-finding capabilities of robo-lawyers could be applied to identify biases, potentially flagging those courtrooms where results do seem to skew one way or another when race or gender is involved, for example.

Robo-lawyers could also be a boon for a court system in which public defenders are already stretched too thin. Currently, this leads to endless backlogs in holding jails and untried cases. The ability to automate some of the “straightforward” cases could help. But there’s still a long way to go, technologically, before a robot could really defend a client in the courtroom. Browder believes they’re on the way. “None of that is beyond the scope of technology," he said. "I think that as artificial intelligence gets better, people won’t even know that they’re not talking to a human.”

If we do start using robots as our lawyers and legal assistants, though, there must be robust measures that keep their application equitable and fair. More money can buy better or more high-profile lawyers today, but we should ensure that automated help in the legal system is accessible to all, since it would be cost-effective to actually have in use. And using data analysis to flag bias and discrimination should be a top priority, if we really want justice to be blind.

The Possibility Report is an ongoing series about how technology is changing our understanding of the world around us. This article is part of CONNECT, our discussion about how emerging technologies could change how we communicate and bring unprecedented numbers of people online.