OK, I’m going to talk about AI and unauthorized practice in just a second, but first…
Who can resist those stories with the teen genius? The wunderkind trope. That Dutch teen with the Boomy McBoomface contraption setting out to heal our polluted oceans. That Mark Zuckerberg fella circa 2004, with the other face thingy.
Who is not in awe of an uncalloused mind lit by bedazzling precociousness and disarmingly naive ambition?
Take Joshua Browder, for instance. He’s surely that kid—our teen wonder—for legal automation. He taught himself to code at age 12 and first came to glory two years ago (at the age of 18) when he launched a website to help UK motorists fight parking tickets. Here was a kid who made a simple website tool. All you had to do was enter your name, a penalty charge number, click the least unlikely Hail Mary excuse from a list of 12 possible reasons/ways why/how you didn’t park your car against a fire hydrant or whatever, and his website generated your appeal in a matter of seconds.
Would it work? Maybe… even probably? (how’s 64% odds?) Would it cost you to try? Nope!
If he wasn’t the Spartacus of his generation, he was at least the Spartacus of Camden Council’s by-law enforcement division, and later other cities. He vanquished millions of dollars in fines. And then, looking more like an actual crusader, he set his sights on fighting homelessness and evictions in UK.
Since that time, the young Londoner has hopped the pond, enrolled at Stanford, and brought—in a stroke of dramatic irony—the revolution to the colonies. New York and Seattle have since fallen to the automaton fury of his DoNotPay chatbot. So too Equifax come under siege. The robot lawyer will even automatically sue Equifax for you in any of 50 states… or at least fill out some of the forms.
It may not be a “panacea“, but Browder’s bots have begun to take a bite out of, or at least show teeth to, a big problem. You know, that Access to Justice one?
The problem suffered by folks who can’t or won’t pay lawyers?
This is where we come in, Dear Reader. Folks with that monopoly to practice.
I sometimes write about artificial intelligence, and muse on its impact on the legal services sector. Last year I left some questions hanging in a post called “Of Cybernetic Shysters, AI and Guardians of the Rule of Law”.
One question that I had in mind back then was “Can robots even practice law?” Sure in an existential, but what about even a mere definitional sense?
But the better question still: “Even if a robot can practice law, is that even prohibited by our regulatory scheme?”
So when The Vancouver Sun ran the following headline last week:
Entrepreneur launches Robot Lawyer chatbot in four Canadian cities
… I took notice.
On its surface the article is about how Browder plans to unleash an army of cybernetic shysters to eat the backlog of unprofitable legal problems that we jealously hoard here in Vancouver and elsewhere in Canada. Sounds scary, right?
But at the root of the article—I see it’s actually a story about what the Law Society of BC plans to do about it. Or better yet, what they even can do without changing the law around unauthorized practice.
Actually, I think we might be in trouble.
Currently in BC, Part 2 of the Legal Profession Act says this (emphasis added):
Authority to practise law
15 (1) No person, other than a practising lawyer, is permitted to engage in the practice of law, [except the discreet list of those who are not lawyers but can anyway]
(6) The benchers may make rules prohibiting lawyers from facilitating or participating in the practice of law by persons who are not authorized to practise law.
You will notice I liberally emphasized the words “NO PERSON“? It doesn’t say robots or computers.
Well, perhaps the ambit of the term “practice of law” might save us?
No. Earlier in the definitions, the LPA explains what is and what is not meant by “practising law”. It does include:
(a) appearing as counsel or advocate,
(b) drawing, revising or settling [the usual legal docs]
(c) doing an act or negotiating in any way for the settlement of, or settling, a claim or demand for damages,
(d) agreeing to place at the disposal of another person the services of a lawyer,
(e) giving legal advice,
(f) making an offer to do anything referred to in paragraphs (a) to (e), and
(g) making a representation by a person that he or she is qualified or entitled to do anything referred to in paragraphs (a) to (e).
It does not say:
(h) installing or causing to be installed a computer program that is capable of doing anything referred to in paragraphs (a) to (g), unless [carefully worded exceptions]
What I’d ask readers to reflect upon are some questions, namely:
- Do you agree that the LPA has no hope of shoehorning a chatbot, i.e. some computer code processing inputs, within the plain and ordinary meaning of the word “person”?
Because if so, we have a problem.
- Has anyone considered something like the above addition to the definition of practicing law?
Paul? I’m asking you especially!
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