Lawyers make for a perfect case study when examining the effects of occupational licensing within high-skill professions. They’re highly paid not only because they provide a valuable service to their clients, but also because of restrictions on entry into the profession. A 2015 report from the Obama administration estimated members of the legal profession earn a premium of over 10 percent thanks to licensing restrictions.
That being said, a great deal of the work done by those in the legal profession is relatively tedious, particularly when it comes to low-level civil offenses, like traffic violations. As the possibilities for automation and artificial intelligence expand, the legal services company DoNotPay is offering free legal advice and services provided by “the world’s first robot lawyer.”
DoNotPay initially focused on fighting parking tickets because [founder Joshua] Browder views them as an unfair tax on the poor. He says DoNotPay has succeeded in overturning citations about half the time, saving users $16 million in fines over its first three years. Now, operating on just over $1 million in venture capital funding, the start-up is expanding to cover a broad range of legal problems.
DoNotPay’s app, which is in development, will monitors users’ accounts and gets them money back whenever the law allows. It can automatically rebook plane tickets when prices drop, request refunds when banks charge illegal overdraft fees, and help users reclaim security deposits from shady landlords…
“These processes are so bureaucratic that if you have no resources at all, it really is impossible to get the help you need,” says Browder. And as long as lawyers have an incentive to keep laws complex and their services expensive, he thinks it will take a bottom-up approach to make the system fair. DoNotPay has built bots that can query automated email, chat, and telephone systems thousands of times to, for example, get users a quick appointment at the DMV.
Since that was written, DoNotPay has been made available, and while it probably won’t be a complete substitute for a flesh-and-blood lawyer anytime soon, it’s a promising way to provide access to legal services for those who either can’t afford or can’t take time away to hire an attorney. (Indeed, the burdens of reclaiming security deposits and dealing with bank overdraft fees are disproportionately likely to harm those who don’t have easy access to legal services.)
It’s possible that DoNotPay could face some legal troubles of its own, though. LegalZoom, the online legal assistance site that allows users to cheaply handle routine legal tasks like updating a will, has been sued by eight different state Bar associations, but has thankfully prevailed.
The fact that DoNotPay is a free service is a bonus, but even if it weren’t, it’s a tool that could not only save potential clients time and money, but also free up attorneys’ time to focus on other tasks.