Inside the claims against DoNotPay's Joshua Browder and the 'World's First Robot Lawyer'
Kathryn Tewson, an investigative paralegal with the New York City-based corporate law firm Kamerman, Uncyk, Soniker & Klein, keeps busy in her free time. The classically trained singer performed as a member of the Seattle Symphony Chorale for a run of performances in 2023. In the past, she’s been featured on the soundtracks of movie trailers and video games, including the first-person shooter game Destiny 2.
More recently, however, Tewson has taken on another side project from her Seattle home: online sleuthing into DoNotPay, a legal service founded by Joshua Browder that uses a chatbot to help people produce documents and forms and until recently was billed as “The World’s First Robot Lawyer.”
DoNotPay piqued Tewson’s interest after Browder, riding a wave of ChatGPT hype, made some eyebrow-raising claims about ushering generative AI into courtrooms. In December 2022, the DoNotPay CEO floated the idea of using artificial intelligence to instruct a defendant in traffic court using ChatGPT and Apple AirPods. Then in early January 2023, he offered $1 million to any lawyer who would use the technology in a U.S. Supreme Court argument.
But what really got the paralegal’s attention was Browder’s claim on Twitter (now X) that he used AI to create a subpoena and send it to a police officer in a traffic court case. Tewson says it “set off a lot of my investigative alarm bells” when that post was deleted after she asked Browder who signed it.
“Everybody had different ideas about what a ‘robot lawyer’ is. We were all working from our own assumptions,” Tewson says. “I thought to myself, ‘I don’t have to guess what this is. It’s a public website. I can sign up for it and find out.’”
After sitting down at a small Ikea desk tucked in the corner of her bedroom and signing on to DoNotPay on her laptop, Tewson expected “some kind of real-time legal analysis” from an AI chatbot. What she found was less “robot lawyer” and more “plug-and-chug document wizard.” She tried to produce three legal documents through DoNotPay but says she received only one: a shoddy demand letter for breach of contract. According to her, the letter was undated, poorly formatted and not something she would ever send out to another party in a dispute.
“More troubling to me was the fact that it inserted terms that it didn’t ask me about—like an interest rate—and it offered a payment plan,” Tewson says. “And the interest rate was below the maximum you can charge in my jurisdiction. So for me, it was leaving money on the table.”
Then in late January 2023, Browder dropped his traffic court plan, claiming “state bar prosecutors” had threatened him with six months of jail time if he followed through. In an interview with NPR at that time, he declined to identify which state bar had targeted him or which official was behind the threats, although he said several state bars were investigating his company, including the State Bar of California. He then announced that some of DoNotPay’s services, including the defamation demand letter and divorce settlement features Tewson tried to test-drive, “have very little usage” and were a “distraction.” Moving forward, he wrote on Twitter, DoNotPay would pivot to consumer rights and help people tackle medical bills, cancel subscription services and dispute credit reports.
In June, DoNotPay abandoned the “World’s First Robot Lawyer” branding on its website, becoming “Your AI Consumer Champion.” DoNotPay spokeswoman Shining Wang refused to answer questions about the rebrand.
But the startup’s woes didn’t end there. In 2023, Browder has faced three federal lawsuits, including a consumer class action complaint in San Francisco for unlawful practice of law that suggests DoNotPay’s AI is based more on hype than reality. In April, DoNotPay filed a motion to compel arbitration in that case.
A second complaint filed by a proposed class of lawyers in Illinois also alleges unauthorized practice of law.
Then a class action filed in April in a federal court in Los Angeles claimed it was “nearly impossible” to cancel DoNotPay after paying $18 a month for the service. But in July, U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald granted DoNotPay’s motion to compel arbitration and stayed the case pending the outcome of those proceedings. The company’s arbitration clause waives the right of individual consumers to file class actions but allows them to opt out of arbitration if they provide notice to the company within 30 days, according to the court’s 20-page order.
In August, Wang said the plaintiff in the case, Sangshin Lee, had not “initiated any individual arbitration claims” and “now that the litigation is behind us, we look forward to returning to our core focus of helping automate administrative tasks with AI.” Lee’s Malibu, California-based law firm, Clarkson, did not respond to an interview request.
While Browder dismisses the claims as the work of “angry” lawyers, some of the negative attention has nonetheless roiled other access-to-justice innovators. DoNotPay claimed to have resolved more than 2 million cases and saved consumers about $100 million. The DoNotPay website says it “is not a law firm and is not licensed to practice law” and is only a “platform for legal information and self-help.”
Browder tells the ABA Journal his company gets “frivolous lawsuits from time to time,” and he rejects the notion he is overhyping his technology or promising something he can’t deliver.
“GPT is publicly available technology,” the London-born CEO says. “You could build your own robot in two hours. DoNotPay is not claiming to have some proprietary hidden AI technology. We just use the publicly available one.”
Browder first made headlines back in 2015 when he started DoNotPay at age 18, the summer before enrolling in the computer science program at Stanford University. Back then, the curly-haired bespectacled teenager pitched a free chatbot to fight parking tickets. During that period, he came across as the archetypal tech geek—studious, awkward and endearing—promising to rally against corporations and governments and open up the justice system to more Americans.
“There are lots of unfair parking tickets issued,” Browder told Stanford magazine in 2016, “but the only people worse than the officers issuing the tickets are the lawyers.”
Now in his mid-20s, he looks more like an early-career middle school teacher than a fresh-faced tech upstart, swapping out college T-shirts and jeans for suit jackets and pants. Browder says he’s a “terrible driver,” and after successfully fighting his tickets, he was looking for a way to make things easier for friends and family who wanted to appeal their tickets.
It worked like this: If you got a ticket, you could type in the information from the citation into Browder’s chatbot, and it would create a notice of appeal.
The CEO says he decided to automate the process because he got tired of repeatedly having to enter the same information in appeal letters.
The early success of his DoNotPay chatbot (at that time the system used the IBM AI platform, Watson) made Browder realize that “automated consumer rights is bigger than just tickets,” he says.
Browder soon expanded the service and said he would help homeless people apply for public housing, help consumers get cheaper flights and refugees apply for asylum.
In 2017, he announced DoNotPay would expand into 1,000 areas of law to fight workplace discrimination, fraudulent credit card charges and landlord-tenant disputes.
The BBC called him the “Robin Hood of the internet,” and in 2017, he was on both the Forbes “30 Under 30 Europe: Law & Policy” list and one of the ABA Journal’s Legal Rebels. DoNotPay was the recipient of the ABA’s 2020 Louis M. Brown Award for its “commitment to increasing legal services to those of modest means.” His company attracted angel investors and venture capital firms, like Andreessen Horowitz, that have invested millions of dollars in it.
Browder’s simple message about taking on the scourge of parking tickets and greedy lawyers earned him plenty of fans, particularly in the access-to-justice space. About 30 million people represent themselves in state courts each year. Low- income Americans report they can’t get adequate help for more than 90% of their civil legal problems, with many of them tackling life-changing issues involving health care, housing and education on their own. As a result, tech innovators in the access-to-justice space share Browder’s lofty goal of helping ordinary people navigate the justice system.
Tom Martin, the founder of the legal technology company LawDroid, says Browder inspired him to launch his startup, which designs chatbots for law firms. He is conflicted about the recent controversies but still believes the CEO’s intentions were good.
“One thing I have admired about Joshua is his unique talent for jumping on the latest news cycle and leveraging some new thing—it could be ChatGPT, GPT-4 or AI in general—and then using it as a method of amplifying his message,” says Martin, a 2022 ABA Journal Legal Rebel.
Natalie Anne Knowlton of Access to Justice Ventures says she was a “pretty outspoken fan of DoNotPay from the beginning.
“I still am, to a large extent, a fan of how he has approached some of the access-to-justice points. Of course, consumer harm is not something I’m ever going to get behind,” says Knowlton, a 2023 ABA Journal Legal Rebel, referring to some of the allegations against the company.
Reviews of DoNotPay’s basic features have been mixed. John Naughton, emeritus professor of the Public Understanding of Technology at Britain’s Open University, wrote in a 2017 Guardian article that DoNotPay drafted an “impressive” notice under the U.K.’s Data Protection Act 1998 to protect his personal information from direct marketers. That same year, Seattle lawyer and technologist Dan Lear told NPR he used DoNotPay to draft a 500-word letter to contest a parking ticket.
But after Browder scaled his ambitions to tackle other areas of law, some wondered whether he was promising more than he could deliver.
DoNotPay “might need to work out a few kinks before it can deliver on the hype,” Stephanie Wilkins wrote for Above the Law in 2018, expressing concerns about the accuracy of the app’s responses to legal questions.
“For things as important as securing immigration status, which is one of the services DoNotPay promotes, mistakes can ruin lives,” wrote Wilkins, who is now editor-in-chief of Legaltech News.
Not only that, but Browder also made some debatable claims about his chatbot’s success rate. In December 2015, the Daily Mail reported 86,000 people launched appeals through Browder’s website and nearly 40% of them were successful. Then in 2016, Browder told the Guardian that out of 250,000 claims, the company had successfully overturned 160,000 in London and New York City.
It was those numbers that gave lawyer Sam Glover pause. Glover, founder of the legal website Lawyerist, sounds almost embarrassed as he recounts how he was a “bit of a fanboy” of Browder’s after interviewing him for his podcast. “I think I turned to my business partner Aaron [Street] and said, ‘Holy s—, Josh Browder’s as smart as s—’ or something along those lines. I had a very positive impression of him,” Glover says.
But in 2017, as Glover considered Browder’s numbers on parking tickets, he started to have his doubts. Surely technology with this kind of impact would have reshaped the court systems in London and New York City and shown up in public records?
David Colarusso, a 2016 ABA Journal Legal Rebel who is now director of Suffolk University Law School’s Legal Innovation and Technology Lab, was freelance writing for Lawyerist at the time. He agreed to look into Browder’s U.K. numbers. London Councils’ parking enforcement and appeals statistics did not appear to support Browder’s claims, Colarusso’s reporting revealed.
But at that stage, Colarusso was excited about the potential of services like DoNotPay to close the justice gap and wanted to give Browder the benefit of the doubt.
Colarusso thought Browder “maybe got caught up in a little puffery” and “got a little ahead of his skis.” He got the sense the pressure and limelight were getting to the 20-year-old.
But as Colarusso pressed Browder to reveal his data and methodology, he claims the DoNotPay founder essentially told him to take his word for it and that Browder refused to hand over his data other than confirming the success rate reported by the Daily Mail was based on a user poll. Later, Browder told Glover and Colarusso he did not trust the Lawyerist’s intentions, accusing the two men of trying to defame him and second-guessing Colarusso’s observations about the public data.
Glover decided not to publish Colarusso’s article back in 2017. (The technology website TechDirt published a version of the story earlier this year. Tewson likewise concluded this year that Browder’s numbers didn’t add up after examining the publicly available data in New York City and London.) Back then, Browder was just a Stanford student with a side hustle. Moreover, Glover wasn’t sure an investigative story about a young tech founder was a good fit for Lawyerist.
“I think he might have been playing a part” and exaggerating his product’s capabilities, Glover says with the benefit of hindsight. But he adds: “It’s possible we’re all wrong, and [DoNotPay] is legitimate.”
Do no harm?
As for Tewson, her journey has taken her from lengthy Twitter threads debunking Browder’s claims to a state court in New York, where a judge in March denied her pretrial discovery petition request against DoNotPay and Browder. Tewson didn’t test the chatbot again because Browder abruptly changed its terms of service to prevent consumers from using it for “fake cases” (since Tewson was not contesting any genuine disputes, she entered fictitious details) and, according to the paralegal, revoked her account and blocked her IP address. She says she plans to file a consumer protection lawsuit against DoNotPay with her attorney, Remy Green. In October, they told the ABA Journal they expected to file it in the coming months.
Despite Browder’s claim he is the victim of “angry lawyers,” Tewson says she is an access-to-justice advocate. In her court filing, Tewson is forthright about her motives for pursuing DoNotPay, claiming the startup and Browder “appear to have lied to consumers and are pretending to have cutting-edge legal technology, all to scam them out of about $36 a person.”
Class action lawyer Jay Edelson, who is representing plaintiff Jonathan Faridian in the putative consumer class action in San Francisco, likens Browder to a “carnival barker.” DoNotPay could do more harm than good if consumers use the service for anything important, and they could get sanctioned if they relied on the platform for court filings, he argues.
Edelson’s firm asked the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to deny DoNotPay’s motion to compel arbitration. In a June court filing, Edelson attorney J. Eli Wade-Scott draws attention to the irony of DoNotPay’s motion, arguing the company “has taken an aggressive public position against arbitration,” even creating a product called “DoNotSign” that flags arbitration clauses in terms of service agreements. Browder has suggested that such clauses are unfair to consumers, the filing adds.
Kevin Green of Goldenberg Heller & Antognoli, which filed the unauthorized practice of law complaint in Illinois, said his firm supports consumers’ rights. “But providing legal services without the requisite expertise, competence, character and licensure requirements puts the rights of people relying on those services at risk and creates a gap in accountability,” he says.
In May, DoNotPay filed a motion to dismiss the case and argued the plaintiff, law firm MillerKing, did not have legal standing to sue under the Lanham Act and Illinois’ Deceptive Trade Practices Act, and it also had failed to show how it had been harmed by the alleged violations.
[Editor’s note: On Nov. 11 after this issue of the ABA Journal went to press, Chief U.S. District Judge Nancy J. Rosenstengel granted DoNotPay’s motion to dismiss but gave the law firm the opportunity to file an amended complaint by Dec. 18.]
DoNotPay is not the first legal technology startup to face unauthorized practice of law claims in court. Launched in 2001, LegalZoom, a mainstay of the legal tech landscape, faced several UPL lawsuits over its software. Whether the claims against DoNotPay hold up remains to be seen. With the advent of ChatGPT, generative AI platforms are quickly advancing, making it conceivable that DoNotPay could yet deliver on the hype, although plenty of concerns have been raised about the accuracy and reliability of software on the market.
All the same, other legal tech innovators say the DoNotPay story is having ripple effects. In what was already a tough economic environment, Martin says some investors are second-guessing whether legal tech startups are a good investment. He says the lawsuits and coverage are an unwelcome distraction when tech innovators engage with state regulators, and he is concerned about the impact the litigation against DoNotPay could have on the unauthorized practice of law.
Meanwhile, Devshi Mehrotra, CEO and co-founder of JusticeText and a 2022 ABA Journal Legal Rebel, says she admired Browder for putting a spotlight on access to justice. But she says his proposals about using AI in court risk alienating lawyers and others in an industry in which there can be heavy skepticism toward tech startups. She says she sometimes faces an uphill battle in persuading investors to back her tech and for that reason is always intentional about her messaging.
“I think seeing someone else in that position just make all these grand promises without really thinking through the details of it. … I would say that it rubbed me the wrong way,” Mehrotra says.
DoNotPay has “led to a conversation that is both inevitable and necessary,” Martin says.
“We need to be talking between the state regulators on the one hand and innovators on the other hand about how to better serve people. Because, ultimately, the people are who we’re trying to serve with technology,” he says.
If there’s one thing that experts in the access-to-justice space agree on, it’s that startups need to be transparent about what their technology can and can’t do.
Colarusso says he “doesn’t think it’s too much to ask” for companies to reveal the data and methodology behind their claims.
“People in this space who are doing innovative things, they want to tell you all about it, want to dive into the numbers, they want to show you this stuff. I don’t think you need to put them under a microscope. Someone who’s genuinely doing the work will want to share it,” he says, before quoting scientist Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
For his part, Browder says the allegations and Tewson’s findings are just a drop in the ocean compared to the tens of thousands of people his company has helped. He is bullish about his odds in court.
“I have a lot of haters,” Browder says. “We believe the best way is to just confidently defend ourselves in court. When the courts rule in our favor, we can move on to building great products.”
This story was originally published in the December 2023-January 2024 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Behind the Screens: Inside the claims against DoNotPay’s Joshua Browder and the ‘World’s First Robot Lawyer’.”