DoNotPay is an app that makes a great headline: the “the world’s first robot lawyer.” Behind that headline is a story about access to justice, bureaucracy, risk taking, bold solutions to pressing problems, and open questions. I had a chance to sit down last week with Joshua Browder, DoNotPay’s CEO and founder, and I took away from that discussion the picture of a company that has a product that, if properly developed, could turn parts of the legal industry upside-down. The chances of this happening just got better for Browder because last month he wrapped a series A funding round with a who’s who of Silicon Valley VCs, including famed Facebook investor Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund.
If that got your attention, it should.
The Hacker Gets A Ticket
The story behind DoNotPay is straight out of the Silicon Valley app development storybook. Browder, a computer science student studying at Stanford, found himself accumulating parking tickets. As the UK-raised Browder jested during our interview, “it turns out everyone drives on the other side of the road.” Browder had a problem, but he was also in the sweet spot of creative necessity. As a student, he lacked the funds to pay off his tickets, but had the time, aptitude, and skills to put together a solution. Browder researched signage and zoning codes and began building form letters to fight his tickets. He started winning. Friends began asking him for his forms, and so Browder developed an app to generate the documents for his friends to fight their traffic tickets just like he did. Word of mouth spread about the app until it went viral on Reddit, and suddenly Browder was a college student with a hit commodity on his hands.
DoNotPay received seed funding from investors on terms that allowed Browder to continue working toward his degree by day and developing the app by night. DoNotPay researched and implemented coding and signage language for hundreds of new cities to spread the app outside his Stanford base. “Signs have to be clear in all 50 states and all of these cities, but the actual codes are different. So I built software that keeps the same defense, but changes the legalese to get people out of their tickets elsewhere.” DoNotPay users started sending in other, nontraffic-related legal inquiries, so Browder started developing forms and systems to deal with those.
Browder told me that DoNotPay now has over 50,000 subscribers for access to its suite of self-help legal services, all off a staff of eight. You read that right, eight people. That small team and their app will help you cancel your gym membership, get compensated for flight delays, or jump to the front of the phone queue for the customer service company of your choice. They’ve even begun offering users the ability to “sue anyone” in any small claims court, using their app to generate the documents.
More Than A Novelty
Browder believes his app is more than a novelty that can save you a few bucks — he argues it’s a social necessity. An unacceptably large number of Americans can’t afford to hire an attorney, no matter how dire the need. Heck, many lawyers couldn’t afford to pay their own rate. Access to legal services is a public policy problem that the legal industry has known about for decades but struggled to address. Lawyers and bar associations have generally tried to address the issue through pro bono programs, legal services, and the like. Some are starting to experiment with nonattorney ownership of law firms in the hope that members of the larger business world can add some secret sauce to close the access gap. Despite our efforts, the gap remains.
The root of the problem is largely the fact that most of the legal issues that an everyday consumer faces just aren’t worth hiring a lawyer over, even if the consumer could afford it. Imagine a consumer getting a $100 parking ticket and trying to consult with a lawyer on it. One hundred dollars isn’t even worth the time to take on the administrative overhead of putting a new client into a lawyer’s system, much less review the facts of the case and prepare legal documents.
But just because lawyers can’t take these cases doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for them. Consumers are obviously willing to pay for experts to advocate on their behalf, and there’s at least anecdotal evidence that DoNotPay’s services are doing some good for all parties involved, including the cities issuing the tickets. Los Angeles’ parking chief Wayne Garcia told NPR he was concerned that the increase in appeals DoNotPay causes could overload city resources, but it also has the potential to make the appeals they process comprehensible: “If this process will help the motorist really focus on why they’re contesting their parking citation, it would also help our staff in reviewing the contested parking citation.”
Using automation, self-help, and economies of scale seems like an effective strategy to help consumers navigate difficult systems, and DoNotPay appears to be making progress on a pressing public problem facing America. DoNotPay is pushing aggressively, shaking things up, and taking risks. DoNotPay accomplishes all of that without impacting traditional Biglaw market share — at least today.
The Other Side Of The Moon
Even though DoNotPay advertises its product as a “Robot Lawyer,” its app obviously has never passed a bar exam nor does it have malpractice insurance. And because it’s not a lawyer, it’s doing things lawyers can’t in a regulated profession.
Consider what most of us would do if asked to give legal advice to a person we’ve never met based on facts we can’t verify. Or simply consider the implications of DoNotPay’s “Sue Anyone In Small Claims Court” process. It’s easy to imagine an aggrieved consumer downloading DoNotPay to file a small claims complaint against their neighbor, and the neighbor downloading a future version of DoNotPay to prepare answers and a counterclaim. Without knowing it, both these neighbors are fighting one another with the same “robot attorney” representing both. This potential for adversity is not possible for actual attorneys because of conflict of interest rules.
DoNotPay is walking a line between self-help and actual representation. It’s both an answer to the need for legal access and a potential example of why the regulations that increase the cost of legal services exist. The “put the product out into the market and see what happens” model has worked well enough for companies like Uber and Grubhub, but it always comes with legal friction, and none of those companies challenged the fundamental assumptions of the legal system that might decide their fate.
DoNotPay is gathering up all the tiny legal disputes that are too small-stakes to solve individually and pooling them together on one app. But the bigger DoNotPay gets, and the bigger the bite it takes out of the revenues of huge companies and cities, the more it makes itself a target for retributive litigation. A national gym may not care if you or I cancel our membership, but it would probably do anything in its power to prevent DoNotPay from helping thousands of members do the same.
The Multimillion-Dollar Bet
Zooming out from the details of what’s happening with DoNotPay now, the larger, more important story is where it goes in the future. Browder has developed a technology that has potential application to higher-stakes, thornier legal problems that could start putting swaths of lawyers out of work. How far this technology goes is an open question. But if the multimillion-dollar bet Peter Thiel and others have placed on DoNotPay is any indication, it could be far.
James Goodnow is an attorney, commentator, and Above the Law columnist. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and is the managing partner of NLJ 250 firm Fennemore Craig. He is the co-author of Motivating Millennials, which hit number one on Amazon in the business management new release category. As a practitioner, he and his colleagues created a tech-based plaintiffs’ practice and business model. You can connect with James on Twitter (@JamesGoodnow) or by emailing him at [email protected]