Law review: The invasion of robot lawyers
Over the past century, automation, mechanization, and computerization have swallowed up blue-collar jobs on a monumental scale. This trend has largely been touted as “progress.” Economic efficiency. A boon for capitalism. A boost to the bottom-line.
Enter artificial intelligence. White-collar workers are up in arms. AI is better at analyzing market trends, engineering buildings, transferring real estate titles, and conducting legal research. Impossible! Such tasks require the degree-holding, flexible, compassionate, unique human mind to be performed. Come for white-collar jobs and the free market finds constraint. Undermine the livelihood of lawyers, get slapped by the law.
DoNotPay – a tech startup that claims to be “The World’s First Robot Lawyer” – recently found its way into the national news cycle by announcing that users of its AI system would contest traffic tickets in open court.
The plan was to have traffic offenders wear smart glasses to record court proceedings, while DoNotPay’s AI provides verbal responses, via an earpiece, for the offender to recite to the judge. The system supposedly relies on AI text generators, including ChatGPT and DaVinci, to instantaneously scour the infinite digital legal landscape, digest the information, and generate a correct and cogent legal argument. All in a matter of seconds.
The first ever so-called “Robot Lawyer” was set to appear (i.e., exist in the ether and whisper in the ear of some red-light-runner) in an unidentified California court on February 22, 2023. But the plug got pulled. DoNotPay backed out after allegedly receiving threats of criminal prosecution for the unauthorized practice of law.
You see, lawyers take the title seriously and vigilantly protect the profession from uncredentialed outsiders. In California, Business and Professions Code sections 6125 and 6126 make it a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine to practice law without a license.
The “practice of law” has been broadly defined as “legal advice and counsel and the preparation of legal instruments and contracts by which legal rights are secured.” By synthesizing applicable law with case specific facts to produce exculpatory, in-court arguments for a particular traffic offender, DoNotPay’s AI system risked wading into the practice of law without a license. Is the approach fundamentally different than the lawful practice of a litigant representing herself by reading countless “credible” legal articles found on Google? It is a thin line.
So how is a law license obtained? Well, sell organs to pay for three years of law school, spend months studying for a two-day bar exam that emphasizes rote memory over analytical thinking, and then pay the State Bar a one-time application fee and annual dues. All that to say, becoming a licensed lawyer can be achieved without ever doing any actual lawyering.
But have no fear leery legal consumers, the California Supreme Court has held, “The prohibition against unauthorized law practice … is designed to ensure that those performing legal services do so competently.” And, as reasoned by a California appellate court, “Difficult or doubtful legal questions” call for the “application of a trained legal mind.” Only licensed lawyers – as determined by licensed lawyers – meet the criteria.
Cynicism aside, issues that require the application of legal knowledge are typically accompanied by monetary or criminal consequences. Representing oneself is, in most instances, a gamble not worth taking. As Abraham Lincoln said, “A man who represents himself has a fool for a client.” This applies to laypeople and lawyers alike. Add a new-fangled robot lawyer to the mix, and now you have two fools.
The dawn of the robot lawyer is upon us though, and in due course jobless human lawyers will be the fools. Until that time, go out and hire a licensed lawyer. Take it from me – a licensed human lawyer: The fate of humanity depends on it.
Ravn R. Whitington is a partner at Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada. Ravn is a member of the firm’s Trial Practice Group where he focuses on all aspects of civil litigation. He has a diverse background in trial practice ranging from complex business disputes to personal injury to construction law, and all matters in between. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.portersimon.com.
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