Discover more from Jacob Silverman
Angry Users Want DoNotPay to Pay Up
Troubles Accumulate for the Robot Lawyer That’s Not a Robot Or a Lawyer
After Sam Bankman-Fried’s cryptocurrency empire collapsed spectacularly in November, Joshua Browder, the CEO of DoNotPay, a website and app offering a “robot lawyer” to automate legal services at low cost, acknowledged that his company was caught up in the sprawling FTX drama. “FTX/Alameda Research was an investor in DoNotPay,” he tweeted. “Given their bankruptcy, it seems like their stake will ultimately be owned by millions of FTX depositors. We promise to serve our millions of new beneficial owners well. Power to the people.” He later said that he felt “deep shame” in letting the company become “a small investor” in DoNotPay.
According to previous reporting and industry sites like Crunchbase, DoNotPay received an investment not from FTX, or its hedge fund Alameda Research, but from Bankman-Fried personally. A spreadsheet of Alameda’s investments, shared by the Financial Times, lists a $750,000 equity investment in DoNotPay, made by Maclaurin Investments Ltd, one of the more than one hundred companies in the vast constellation of FTX corporate entities. Maclaurin, which was registered in the Seychelles, filed for bankruptcy along with most of SBF’s portfolio. However the investment was officially recorded, it traced back to Sam Bankman-Fried.
A DoNotPay spokeswoman would not respond to questions about the terms and origin of the investment.
On Twitter, Browder spun the FTX disaster as an opportunity to fight for consumers. He shared a plan for FTX customers to get their money back – months or years before the official bankruptcy process finishes, which will likely produce payouts of only pennies on the dollar. Browder outlined five possible responses for aggrieved customers: claim fraud to reverse the bank deposits they had already sent to FTX US; sue YouTube influencers; return gift cards; “attack FTX entities” in small claims court; and “locate senior [FTX] employees’ assets in states like California and sue them.”
Allegedly hatched over a weekend with a group of lawyers, it was a typically Browderian mishmash of ideas – aggressive, litigious, strange, a brute-force attempt to hack the law and all its cumbersome formalities. Browder’s own tweets made it seem like some of these methods might be laden with potential danger. “Under Federal rules, any ACH transfer can be reversed within 60 days, if it was fraudulent,” Browder tweeted, adding an ominous qualifier: “Call your bank and choose your words carefully.”
This suggestion that retail investors should attempt to reverse deposits they knowingly made lit up legal Twitter. A number of lawyers responded that Browder was telling customers to break the law by claiming a transaction was fraudulent when it wasn’t. They were also concerned that by trying to sidestep the official bankruptcy process, these customers might be in legal jeopardy, or might have any money they receive clawed back by courts.
Six days later, Browder released a “script” that, he said he was told, “works with the five largest banks, among others, for reversing ACH deposits to FTX.” He warned readers that “it is a delicate situation regarding the meaning of unauthorized.” The included script cited regulations from the obscure but important National Automated Clearinghouse Association, the organization that administers ACH transactions. In a follow-up tweet, Browder added another warning: “You should reflect on whether your transaction was unauthorized and choose your words carefully.”
The Twitter lawyers assembled again, telling the entrepreneur that his attempt to stick it to FTX could backfire for consumers. Browder stood firm, telling one critic he didn’t know what he was talking about. Later, he deleted the tweet with the script.
* * *
Until recently, DoNotPay seemed to be flying high. Founded by Joshua Browder, son of wealthy businessman and Putin-nemesis Bill Browder, the startup had elite Silicon Valley investors, a $210 million valuation, and a mission. A former Thiel Fellow who received $100,000 from the Palantir co-founder to drop out of college and follow his entrepreneurial instincts, Browder called himself “the Robin Hood of the internet,” preaching a populist gospel of using tech to return power to individuals overwhelmed by legal costs, bureaucracy, and paperwork.
He honed his shtick over the last seven years by frequently talking about DoNotPay’s origin story: when Browder was a teenage driver in London, he racked up dozens of parking tickets, which he felt were undeserved. He developed DoNotPay to streamline the process for disputing tickets. Within months, he claimed, his company was helping scores of people to challenge unwanted fines. It soon acquired venture-capital funding and began to scale its services, offering assistance in dealing with canceling subscriptions, filing for personal bankruptcy, guiding people through divorce settlements, or drafting a letter to threaten a lawsuit. The new “robot lawyer” was born, and it was here to help.
In January, DoNotPay was gearing up for one of its biggest product rollouts to date – a stunt, sure, but one that was designed to showcase the site’s abilities and affirm its basic thesis: that credentialism, costs, and complexity had skewed the legal system against most everyday people. A lot of people, including in the legal field, didn’t dispute that central argument. But many expressed concern about Browder’s plan: he wanted to use a chatbot to fight a traffic ticket in court. And he had already gathered volunteers.
But Browder wanted to go bigger than traffic court. On January 8, he offered $1 million to anyone “with an upcoming case in front of the United States Supreme Court to wear AirPods and let our robot lawyer argue the case by repeating exactly what it says.” As some Twitter users noted, the Supreme Court prohibits all electronic devices during court proceedings. Responding to one lawyer who had argued before the Court, Browder tweeted, “Lose the Supreme Court bar but win history.”
Browder delights in a bit of bravado and grenade-throwing, yet it’s his move-fast-and-challenge-everything attitude that worries many legal professionals. Applying Silicon Valley business principles to something as important and potentially definitive as “the law” presents numerous practical challenges, ethical quandaries, and, of course, legal concerns. And while our justice system is horribly disfigured after 245 years, judicial reforms tend to come from social activism and politics – not public stunts experimenting with unproven technologies.
Even so, Silicon Valley has found its latest hype vehicle – Artificial Intelligence, especially in the form of ChatGPT, a powerful but unreliable chatbot and generative text tool made by the company OpenAI. Like many other industries exploring the tech, Browder sees an opportunity to use it to bulk up his offerings. But AI may not be the all-encompassing tool that cuts through the Gordian knot of a sclerotic justice system. It might even be harmful.
* * *
After announcing his traffic-court plan, the 26-year-old Browder swept through the media, touting his vision to democratize legal services, starting with a simple speeding violation. The lawyer-chatbot would feed instructions through a bluetooth earpiece to a human representative in court. He called it “a proof of concept for courts to allow technology in the courtroom,” which would reduce costs for litigants. Impressed by the sense of novelty, the tech press dutifully bid up Browder’s impending court appearance, which, in their telling, might inaugurate a new age of AI lawyers, fighting on behalf of the masses.
It never happened. On January 25, Browder called off the traffic court appearance, which was scheduled for February 23. "Multiple state bars have threatened us," Browder told NPR. "One even said a referral to the district attorney's office and prosecution and prison time would be possible."
The unauthorized practice of law is a misdemeanor or felony in all states. On a March 1 podcast produced by a16z, a leading venture capital firm that invested in DoNotPay, Browder said that the State Bar of California had threatened him with prosecution, along with one other state bar.
The State Bar of California would not confirm whether it had contacted Browder. State Bar Chief Trial Counsel George Cardona offered the following statement: “While we cannot confirm whether or not we have any pending investigation of this matter, generally speaking, when we receive a complaint or become aware of someone engaging or preparing to engage in the Unauthorized Practice of Law, we have a duty and obligation to let them know that they should stop. We regularly let potential violators know that they could face prosecution in civil or criminal court, which is entirely up to law enforcement.”
After scotching the traffic-court plan, Browder announced that his company was pivoting, with more emphasis on consumer protection – “people dealing with expensive medical bills, unwanted subscriptions and issues with credit reporting agencies,” according to NPR. Browder continued to talk about AI legal applications and said he was working on new ChatGPT-based products, including one that would parse terms of service agreements. He’s recently taken to Twitter to show himself outsourcing life tasks to ChatGPT and using it to rapidly generate lawsuits.
OpenAI’s usage policies specifically mention that it is not a legal tool. The company prohibits users from “engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, or offering tailored legal advice without a qualified person reviewing the information. OpenAI’s models are not fine-tuned to provide legal advice. You should not rely on our models as a sole source of legal advice.”
For now, the DoNotPay robot lawyer is only a poor simulacrum of one. And that’s what has people in the legal industry worried. While Browder claims he’s here to democratize the legal industry, a rising group of critics – paralegals, lawyers, disgruntled customers – say that he is acting recklessly, providing a rickety form of AI-inspired automation that potentially generates poor, or simply incorrect, information that then may be used for delicate legal proceedings. Some lawyers alleged to me that Browder is defrauding his customers, a proposition that one day may be litigated in court – without a chatbot.
“The stakes are high and you can't (pardon my language) just fuck around with people's lives like that,” Sarah Glassmeyer, a law librarian, wrote in an email. She pointed to the issue of immigration, where if someone makes a mistake, “you risk deportation and [getting] sent to the back of the line.”
The problem with automation, and AI especially, is that it’s marketed as a cheap, fool-proof, and practically universal answer to an unlimited set of problems. But consult an expert in any field dealing with an influx of AI and you begin to understand that much remains unaccounted for. If you use one of the popular new chatbots or other AI tools – whose definitions and capabilities vary widely – for more than a minute, you’ll easily wander into some strange cul-de-sacs. Essentially regurgitation engines trained on an unbelievably vast corpus of text, ChatGPT and other generative text tools are designed to provide information that seems true, not something that has been verified as factual. And the problems only follow from there.
“Automating the law is hard,” wrote Glassmeyer. “Every jurisdiction (and that number is about 3000 when you count all the counties in the US plus state district courts and then federal) does things a little differently and they're not going to be very forgiving if you mess up, even if an app told you to do that way. And part of the package of "legal advice" is apprising people of the possible outcomes that can happen with any legal situation.”
* * *
While DoNotPay last raised $10 million at a $210 million valuation in 2021, it’s hard to tell exactly how successful the company is. DoNotPay’s anonymous spokeswoman refused to provide specific metrics or revenue numbers. Earlier this year, Browder tweeted a chart that seemed to show nearly 900,000 active users per week. But there’s little available evidence of how many people use DoNotPay or of how many legal victories it’s helped win for its customers. In one YouTube interview, Browder claimed that the company had “resolved 2 million cases successfully.” The company’s accomplishments and its very identity – is it an AI-powered lawyer? a consumer advocacy service? a legal problem solver that’s definitely not a lawyer – remain hazy.
There’s a sense that Browder and DoNotPay are just winging it. A revealing example can be found in a positive review that appears on DoNotPay’s website. Attributed to the Los Angeles Times, the blurb proclaims, “what this robot lawyer can do is astonishingly similar — if not more — to what human lawyers do.” The line was indeed published online by the LA Times, but it was written by a high school student as part of a newspaper project for teens.
The problem that DoNotPay may be encountering is that automation and AI, especially in this inchoate stage, are not panaceas. Some industries are easier to disrupt than others, and the law is bound by systems of education, accreditation, and regulation that are, however dysfunctional in practice, designed to protect the public and ensure fair treatment.
At the same time, this isn’t a story about an industry cartel afraid of an outsider overturning the applecart. Various forms of automation are already used in the legal industry, especially in dealing with the huge amounts of documents and data that complex cases require. The difference is that these tools are just that – tools – that qualified professionals put to use. They are not replacements for lawyers, paralegals, and other expert practitioners.
“My fear is that Browder's cavalier attitude jeopardizes setting back the recent movement behind such tools,” David Colarusso, Director of the Legal Innovation & Technology Lab at Suffolk University Law School wrote in an email. Colarusso published an article in TechDirt questioning Browder’s claims about DoNotPay.
DoNotPay’s stated mission is a laudable one. Launching any kind of legal case is expensive, confusing, and time-intensive. The system is tilted against everyday working people. But offering opaque automated systems and unreliable information – possibly in violation of the law – may not be the democratizing force that Browder claims.
“The unmet need for legal advice is staggering, with the vast majority of Californians unable to afford a $400-an-hour attorney,” said State Bar of California Executive Director Leah Whitson. “In 2023, we are seeing well-funded, unregulated providers rushing into the market for low-cost legal representation, raising questions again about whether and how these services should be regulated. Oversight is key.”
[Screenshot of DoNotPay.com, 5/6/23]
DoNotPay advertises a “robot lawyer,” offers to “solve problems,” and guides people through legal education and legal decisions. But their terms of service emphasize that they are not a law firm: they are “a platform for legal information and self-help.” Information from the site “does not constitute advice,” the ToS reads, nor does the company “review any information you provide us for legal accuracy or sufficiency, draw legal conclusions, provide opinions about your selection of forms, or apply the law to the facts of your situation.”
If it’s not legal advice, then, perhaps it’s legal-ish. A starting point for research, like WebMD, that can’t replace a knowledgeable professional. “If you need advice for a specific problem,” the ToS warns, “you should consult with a licensed attorney.”
“This is something that I find that tech people struggle with, which is that you can't disclose your way around what it is that you're actually doing,” said Jack Sanker, a partner at Ahmundsen Davis who has a podcast about legal topics called Litigation Nation, which has covered DoNotPay. “And so if the Terms of Service says, ‘We're not practicing law,’ and then you go ahead to practice law, the terms of service is not going to protect you.”
* * *
Browder has benefitted from his Robin Hood reputation – who doesn’t resent parking tickets or exhausting legal formalities? – but now his company is being picked apart, both online and, perhaps soon, in court. While a class-action lawsuit against DoNotPay was dismissed last year, other suits are developing.
The potential lawsuits have been inspired by hordes of dissatisfied customers who have peppered review sites with complaints about DoNotPay, especially about unexpected fees and difficulty canceling subscriptions. Despite its name, DoNotPay is quick to demand that customers pay up before delving into its services. After landing on one of its pages – say, how to order a birth certificate or how to fight workplace discrimination – a big button promises “Solve This Problem For Me.” Click on the button and you’re prompted for bank or credit information, which enrolls you in a subscription plan that charges $36 every two months. “It is easy to cancel at any time online,” it says.
Many users have found that’s not the case. On Reddit, there are abundant tales of difficulties canceling the service. The word “scam” gets loosely tossed around. On the Better Business Bureau’s website, DoNotPay has a 1.74 rating on 39 customer reviews. Earlier this year, the BBB listed an F rating for DoNotPay, its lowest score. It’s now listed as NR – no rating – and “not BBB accredited.”
On the reviews site TrustPilot, DoNotPay has 360 reviews and an average score of 1.9 stars. Reviewers say that documents they ordered were poorly written or never appeared. And numerous customers – often with a sense of irony – complain that they never signed up for DoNotPay, received unexplained charges, or were unable to contact customer service. One reviewer wrote: “They are exactly the thing they claim to be fighting against: A "service" that wants to bill you for what you're not using. Avoid at all costs.”
In response to questions about its poor customer reviews, a DoNotPay spokeswoman said that these were common problems for consumer businesses, often caused by customers who forgot their login information or that they’ve signed up for the service. “DoNotPay has hundreds of thousands of customers,” wrote the spokeswoman. “To be clear, it is two clicks to cancel a DoNotPay subscription and all prices and plans are clearly disclosed. Any business of our size will have activity on these websites and we work quickly to resolve them.”
DoNotPay was founded precisely to fight these tangled bureaucracies of the law, corporate communications, and customer service. It offers tips, for example, on how to “jump the phone queue for any customer.” No more dealing with automated agents. But DoNotPay’s own customer service – all emails seem to be handled by someone with the single name “Quinn” – is a cause of frequent complaints.
Edelson PC, a Chicago-based law firm that deals in consumer cases like these, has been advertising on social media, soliciting DoNotPay customers to join a class-action suit. The firm said they’ve heard from numerous angry customers.
“This whole thing is a disaster,” said Jay Edelson, the firm’s founding partner. “I think it's really hurting a lot of people.” DoNotPay’s business model is “misleading a lot of people and not delivering any valuable service,” Edelson said, describing it as consumer fraud. “They don't understand anything about law. They make all these dangerous claims.”
In March, Edelson filed a proposed class action suit in a California court. The suit accuses DoNotPay of practicing law without a license. Browder responded defiantly on Twitter, claiming, “Jay Edelson inspired me to start DoNotPay because he symbolizes everything wrong with the law.” In a long thread, Browder claimed that major class-action attorneys like Edelson extract huge fees in the name of consumer rights. He ended by saying, “while these claims have no merit, we are a startup and things happen.” He then shared his cell phone number and urged customers to call him as late as 2am.
Kathryn Tewson, a paralegal and legal investigator from Washington, has become Browder’s toughest critic, writing droll Twitter threads examining his AI claims, DoNotPay’s evolving terms of service, where Browder claims to live, and even his charitable contributions. Some of her threads have become articles on TechDirt, which has also reported critically on DoNotPay. Drawing on her professional experience, Tewson is now a clearing house of critiques and tips about DoNotPay. “People have had concerns about this company for a while,” she said. “And particularly the fact that it represents itself as a legal AI, as a robot attorney.”
Earlier this year, Tewson signed up for DoNotPay and was exploring its service, requesting various documents. She found its offerings wanting. After she began criticizing the company online, her account was banned. A DoNotPay spokeswoman said the ban was in response to Tewson submitting “fraudulent information.”
Tewson called DoNotPay “pretty sus” and accused the company of “deliberately and knowingly lying to its customers for years,” coaxing them into subscriptions that were difficult to cancel. On Twitter, she’s helped badger DoNotPay into finally canceling accounts of customers who say they have tried and failed to do so for months or years.
“The idea that a middle-aged paralegal could successfully mom-voice the CEO of a $200 million company into canceling a customer's account is pretty humorous,” said Tewson.
On February 13, in the State Supreme Court of New York, Tewson filed a petition for Joshua Browder to preserve evidence and produce discovery materials – the kind of legal action that can precede a class-action lawsuit. In her official petition, Tewson made a novel suggestion: Browder could apply to be represented by the AI lawyer he planned to use in traffic court and the Supreme Court.
In a March hearing, Browder went with an old-fashioned human, and won. The judge dismissed Tewson’s petition, saying that there were unresolved jurisdictional issues, including confusion regarding where Browder lived and where DoNotPay was based. The judge also said, “the petitioner has not demonstrated that she needs this discovery to frame a complaint.” In other words, if Tewson wanted to file a class-action complaint, she didn’t need to go through this kind of procedure first.
[Screenshot from Colorado Secretary of State website, 5/6/23]
That’s exactly what Tewson plans to do. “Josh perjured himself in his response to that lawsuit,” Tewson said, pointing to the ambiguities – delivered under oath – in where he lived and worked. Browder had claimed in a previous court filing that his company was operating out of Colorado, but a Colorado entity for DoNotPay was only registered on March 17 — apparently after some Twitter critics pointed out that such an entity didn’t exist. The registered address for the new corporate entity was an 11,000-square-foot Aspen mansion that online real-estate sites estimate is worth $22 to $28 million.
Tewson operates with the detail-focused mindset of a dogged legal investigator, so every tweet, interview, statement, and court filing by Browder is another opportunity to pick apart apparent contradictions.
“The actions he took in response to the petition only strengthen the underlying suit,” said Tewson. She plans to file a potential class-action lawsuit this month that will include accusations of fraud.
Wielding the tech disruptor’s sensibility and a salesman’s unshakeable faith in his product, it’s not always clear whether Browder is offering to liberate people from onerous fees and bureaucratic obligations, or just dreaming up tools that will lead to more litigation – for someone. In March, Browder demo’d AI-generated “one click lawsuits” for consumers to fight back against annoying robo-callers. Last month, Browder unveiled a “GPT-4 email extension to troll scam and marketing email/text messages by engaging them in an endless A.l. conversation.” It was less a piece of software than a mailbox: Browder said that DoNotPay users could simply forward unwanted solicitations to email@example.com. His company would do the trolling.
This is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.