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Robot lawyers can now come to your defence, courtesy a 19-year old

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:44 IST

It has been said that the only good lawyer is a dead one. Which means the world just got its first good lawyer actually capable of helping. And what's more, it comes courtesy of a 19-year old programmer.

Stanford University student Joshua Browder has developed a robot that actually interacts with clients to give them legal counsel and even generates custom appeals. Since he launched it in 2015, initially to help motorists appeal parking fines, it has already saved users over $3 million.

That is an amazing figure on its own, but it's even more amazing given that it deals with just the United Kingdom and isn't even a year old. Its success is making people sit up and actually ask questions about how the future of practicing law will be.

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It started with a parking fine. Or 30

Browder's venture was born out of necessity after he received 30 parking fines in 9 months for reasons he calls "trivial".

Unwilling to cough up and armed with a fascination for the law, Browder spent hours writing appeals, many of which were successful. Most people in his position would celebrate the wins, curse at the losses and move on. Or just park more carefully. Which is why most people don't have wildly successful websites.

Browder scanned thousands of legal documents released under the UK's Freedom of Information Act and created the website DoNotPay.co.uk. The website allows users to pick one of the 12 options of defence against parking fines and generates custom appeals based on details entertained. All for free. Browder even handled user queries on his own, personally responding to each one.

Within months, the website had already appealed tens of thousands of parking fines, 39.1% of which were successful, according to a user poll. But as the website's popularity grew, Browder found himself unable to respond to thousands of queries on his own.

Now, most people in his position would sell some ad-space, hire a skeletal team to deal with queries and get fat off of the money rolling in. But that's because most people are self-serving and/or lazy.

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Browder decided to create the Do Not Pay robot to best serve his users. The bot functions as a legal counsel that can answer your questions on legal issues and generate a customised appeal accordingly. Moving beyond just parking fines, the robot can also help with flight delay compensation and personal protection insurance claims. It can do pretty much everything short of actually fighting your case in court.

The bot works on a conversation algorithm which uses keywords, pronouns and sentence structure to understand the user's issue and respond appropriately. The bot's algorithm also helps it learn and improve with each new interaction.

Browder isn't even done yet. He's trying to get his parking fine appealing algorithm adopted by self-driving car manufacturers, potentially creating a world where programs and not people are appealing parking fines in the future.

Browder's even working on an Arabic-conversant robot to help refugees apply for asylum.

The case against robot lawyers

Browder's website is an example of the many ways in which artificial intelligence is reshaping the job market. According to recent research released at the World Economic Forum (WEF), 5 million jobs are expected to be taken by robots by 2020 itself. The WEF even called this figure 'conservative'.

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With that being the case it's easy to get carried away and imagine a world without human lawyers. But, as both Browder himself and various legal experts have opined, bots will never fully replace lawyers. Courtroom arguments, creativity and the subtlety and subjectivity of law means that humans will never be entirely replaced.

However, while bots may not dispel the need for human lawyers, they will help law firms cut costs and, indeed, staff, by handling more mundane matters. Things like drafting simple contracts and mining through countless documents for case-relevant evidence will eventually be the sole domain of bots.

In fact, a study by Winston and Strawn, a leading international law firm, showed that software was more efficient than human reviewers at research. What's more, the study even showed that technology cut the review process time by a third.

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It's not the best news for those fresh out of law school who'll see the grunt work once reserved for young associates usurped entirely by technology. The upside though, is that lawyers, now free from the mundanity of the law process will have more time and energy to better think of how to protect their clients' interests.

And hopefully bill them a little less as well.

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First published: 21 February 2016, 9:17 IST
Ranjan Crasta @jah_crastafari

The Ranjan (Beardus Horribilis) is a largely land-dwelling herbivorous mammal. Originally from a far more tropical habitat, the Ranjan can now be found wandering the streets of Delhi complaining about the weather, looking for watering holes and foraging for affordable snacks. Mostly human, mostly happy and mostly harmless, the Ranjan is prone to mood swings when deprived of his morning coffee. Having recently migrated to the Catch offices, he now inhabits a shadowy corner and spends his time distracting people and producing video content to distract them further.