When to Use a Legal App (and When to Hire an Actual Lawyer)

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We are definitely living in the future. Smartphones and advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have granted the average citizen access to resources once reserved only for folks with money. Need a personal chef? Sign up to have gourmet meal kits delivered to your door. Need a chauffeur? There are more rideshare apps than you can shake a stick at. And now, lawyers.

Having a lawyer—in the sense of having some law firm on retainer that you can call at any time—is definitely a Rich Person Move. Most of us can’t afford to have an attorney sitting around waiting for our call, and to be fair, most of us don’t need one. That means when we do need legal advice, it’s a stressful process of finding a lawyer (and the finding the money it takes to hire one). But now we have the growing category of legal apps—tools like DoNotPay, a “robotic process automation (RPA)” app—that help people do things like file lawsuits, fight parking tickets, and regain access to social media accounts. For a relatively small monthly subscription, you can be walking around with a lawyer in your pocket. But do these apps actually work?

How AI is being used in the legal profession

One thing to note is that AI is being used in the legal profession—big time. Law firms all over the world have already incorporated AI and machine-learning into their processes because these technologies are custom-made to crunch through the incredible volume of text that legal processes like discovery generate. AI tools are used to review contracts automatically, search for relevant documents—even to simulate trials and predict outcomes based on a judge’s record.

The reason AI works so well for lawyers is that AI and machine-learning excel at crunching data quickly and accurately, and so much of the law is dealing with reams of documents and hard drives packed with data. When it comes to navigating legal codes and courtrooms, AI can be effective because the law is essentially the world’s most confusing and poorly constructed algorithm. Every step in a legal process triggers a finite number of potential other steps, so AI can speed up the process of figuring out what the next steps are in a legal action.

How useful and effective is a “pocket lawyer”?

While AI’s prodigious effectiveness in data-crunching makes it extremely useful for trained, experienced attorneys, does that translate to the “lawyer in your pocket” power of an app? The answer is a mixed bag.

DoNotPay, for example, works by breaking the law down into automated tasks that can be strung together as needed. This makes the app more flexible than, say, Trust & Will, which only creates (you guessed it) trusts and wills, because it can add bits of legal work as your suit or case proceeds; DoNotPay claims it provides hundreds of services, including providing fake virtual credit cards to sign up for free trials and canceling subscriptions with companies that make it incredibly difficult to do so.

But despite this flexibility, all of these legal apps are limited, and your success with them will be a sliding scale depending on the complexity of your legal needs. Fighting a parking ticket? That’s a pretty straightforward legal algorithm with a very limited number of steps and potential complications, so something like DoNotPay is fairly effective at it: The national success rate for challenging parking tickets is just 40%, but DoNotPay claims it is successful about 70% of the time.

Similarly, when using an app to create a will, you’ll do just fine as long as your needs are relatively straightforward. If you have a complicated financial situation or unusual plans for your estate, you will run into the hard limits of the apps’ algorithms sooner rather than later. This is reflected in DoNotPay’s reviews, which aren’t all great—and its low F rating at the Better Business Bureau.

The other consideration is how far your legal needs take you, because court proceedings still require human beings to show up. Could you use a legal app in order to represent yourself? It’s actually not unlikely that a judge would forbid you from doing so, as reliance on an app might be considered evidence that you’re not competent to defend yourself.

The bottom line? A legal app on your smartphone can replace human lawyers for simple, straightforward legal actions that don’t require trials or other lengthy court appearances. But if your legal needs have even a hint of complexity, you’re much better off shelling out for an actual lawyer—or, at minimum, using a legal app that offers real lawyers as part of its service, like Rocket Lawyer.

   

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