Artificial intelligence has some ways to go before it lives up to all the hype, but fears surrounding robot lawyering are mostly overblown. By “mostly,” we mean GPT-JD isn’t coming for your Biglaw jobs any time soon. But, robot lawyers are already here… for the limited purpose of harassing poor people!
Wired reports that the robot revolution has reached debt collection, where algorithms are out filing suits to collect on all the lawsuits that they would never waste money hiring a real lawyer to pursue. The business model is pretty simple — file a robot suit for those insignificant outstanding debts and use the AI to keep the case alive long enough to get a judge to garnish someone’s wages without ever needing to send a real lawyer to do anything.
The goal of debt collection cases is simple: Turn hard-to-collect debt into easy-to-collect wage garnishments. In most states, when someone loses a debt case, a court can order their employer to redirect their wages toward a creditor instead. The easiest way for that to happen? When the defendant doesn’t show up, defaulting the case. The majority of debt cases end in default: Either the defendant chooses not to show, is confused about what they need to do or should do, or, just as often, never receives notice of a case at all. “Sewer service,” where plaintiffs deliberately avoid notifying defendants of a legal case (for example, by sending a case to an old address), has been a festering problem in debt and eviction cases for decades, and continues to this day. In some cases, people find out they’ve been sued only after noticing that their paycheck has been garnished.
The more jaded out there may say that some people really do owe money and shrug about how they get it. But busting into someone’s bank account in absentia undermines the justice system as a whole. Maybe they had a good reason. Maybe they could’ve agreed to a payment plan. Maybe the debt collector was simply wrong. Previously, debt collectors would pursue these weak sauce cases because there’s a decent relationship between the amount at issue and the likelihood that it’s a bad case. AI is going to blow up those natural guardrails.
This is why I’ve been more reticent than some to celebrate DoNotPay’s troubles. Was it smart to attempt to sneak an algorithm into a courtroom without telling the judge? No. But it was traffic court and apparently a pro se litigant who was going to get steamrolled without it. Even if DoNotPay failed to live up to its traffic ticket fighting promises… sometimes people really committed traffic violations! If it offered a pro se litigant anything it was a bargain. And the disastrous fallout from its ill-conceived public relations efforts, took on a troubling air of elitism that read a lot like “poor people can’t hire lawyers and therefore should not be able to access any legal assistance.”
Say what you will about DoNotPay, but it was trying to help the people. While everyone took turns bashing that piñata, the folks who want to use AI to gouge the people quietly went to work.
The Wired article recommends courts abandon the simple PDF-based filing process with one that uses standard protocols to guarantee the filing isn’t generative AI garbage. Because AI might produce flimsy filings right now, but in an area of the law where courts don’t bother to check and defendants don’t bother to object — if they know about the case at all — it’s a real problem.