Robot attorneys engaged in unauthorized practice of law?

Ken Liu

Artificial intelligence and computer algorithms have already transformed society in areas such as social media, big data, and cybersecurity. Could they also help enable greater access to justice?

In April, I discussed the idea of "online courts" and how our judicial system has been slow to adopt technology for increasing access to justice. But the private sector has been making greater inroads in developing self-help legal aid technologies. Legal entrepreneurs have developed apps such as Upsolve, an automated system that helps consumers file for bankruptcy without charge. This software has worked so well that a court has found the app itself to be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. They have also developed websites such as "DoNotPay," which bills itself as "The World's First Robot Lawyer." Its chatbot, which helps people draft legal letters to do things such as appealing a parking fine, won the American Bar Association's Award for Legal Access.

Although I would love to see more legal aid and "low bono" attorneys, with upwards of 80% of low-income people unable to find legal help, I don't anticipate seeing a day when there will ever be enough legal aid attorneys. Whether or not algorithm-driven apps can ever replace help from real attorneys remains to be seen. But if self-help legal apps can help those who can't find affordable attorneys, they're certainly worth a try.

There are some who fear that AI could replace the work of attorneys. More likely than displacing attorneys, automation should (in theory) help attorneys focus on more high-value work, like spending time talking with clients and developing strategies. And given how expensive attorneys are, maybe displacing a few attorneys and democratizing access to justice wouldn’t be such a bad thing.