State bar associations shout 'objection your honor!' to scare AI lawyer away from court

A gavel about to bang down on a table.
(Image credit: Audtakorn Sutarmjam / EyeEm via Getty)

When it comes to how AI will change our lives the party is very much just getting started. As the tech begins to push into new areas, it's going to run up against one obstacle repeatedly: Lawyers. In a story that feels a little emblematic of our tool-assisted future, an AI-based system designed to give people live legal advice when contesting traffic tickets was blocked from its first-ever courtroom case after the creator backed-down in the face of legal threats from human lawyers.

Joshua Browder is the creator of DoNotPay (no wonder it pissed off the lawyers) and, as reported by NPR, the first planned use of the AI system was for a case in California on February 22. Browder says that, following legal threats from California lawyers of prosecution and even jail time, he's now had to abandon the attempt.

The DoNotPay system is designed (among other things) to help people contest traffic tickets effectively without having to pay a lawyer to do so, and would generate legal arguments for its user through AI text generators including ChatGPT and DaVinci. The science fiction element comes in with the delivery method: The user wears smart glasses that record the court proceedings and dictates the suggested responses into their ears through a directed speaker.

Browder says that, when the February 22 court date was announced, California state bar officials started sending him strongly-worded letters (the state bar being the organisation that licenses and regulates lawyers).

"Multiple state bars have threatened us," said Browder, "one even said a referral to the district attorney's office and prosecution and prison time would be possible. Even if it wouldn't happen, the threat of criminal charges was enough to give it up.

"The letters have become so frequent that we thought [this case] was just a distraction and that we should move on."

Browder, probably wisely, declines to cite the state bar officials by name, adding that DoNotPay is now under investigation by multiple state bars including that of California.

George Cardona, the State Bar of California Chief Trial Counsel, provided NPR with a statement which does not address DoNotPay specifically but emphasises the organization's duty to investigate the unauthorised 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," said Cardona.

It probably didn't help that, as well as calling it DoNotPay, Browder describes the tool as a "robot lawyer", and it should also be acknowledged that this is the CEO of a startup for whom all publicity is good publicity. DoNotPay was founded in 2015 and has raised tens of millions in seed funding, with Browder coming up with various stunts and claims about the tech along the way (such as that an earlier version had overturned 374,000 tickets by 2017: Citation very much needed).

It does seem deliberate that the company hadn't considered making contact with a state bar association to at least explore the issues around things like whether an AI might need a license to practice law in a courtroom, though doing what you want and waiting for the regulators to catch up is pretty much established tech startup strategy by now. It's just not such a good one once the lawyers are involved.

Browder says DoNotPay is going to move away from the traffic tickets for the moment and the idea of assisting live in court to helping with things like contesting medical bills, unwanted subscriptions, and issues with credit reporting agencies. Which is not quite the same level of ambition as an AI lawyer live-coaching you through a trial, and does make you wonder how the technology would actually have performed on that February 22 court date.

There are factors other than professional regulation as well. Depending on the state and indeed the country, rules on recording in courtrooms vary greatly,  while AIs like DoNotPay would need input data, which is to say recording audio, in such a setting. 

Whether it's Browder and DoNotPay or some other interloper, however, AI seems certain to continue to try and make inroads into the legal profession. "The truth is, most people can't afford lawyers," said Browder. "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." Not if the real lawyers have anything to do with it, chum.

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."