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Robot "Lawyer" Defeats Illinois Law Firm in Federal Court

By T. Evan Eosten Fisher, Esq. | Last updated on

DNP advertises itself as “the world's first robot lawyer" and sells subscription-based legal help through its website. A small law firm in Illinois, MillerKing, took several issues with DNP's service and sued. The lawsuit, which alleged false advertising, unauthorized practice of law, and deceptive trade practices, was dismissed by a federal judge in the Southern District of Illinois just before Thanksgiving.

The suit raised some novel questions about the intersection of AI and the practice of law. The plaintiff firm alleged that many of DNP's “clients" were dissatisfied with the service and had suffered from adverse outcomes after using the AI to help them with legal matters. As a result, they argued, the “robot lawyer" was injuring the goodwill associated with the services provided by legitimate lawyers. Moreover, the plaintiff firm properly pointed out that the DNP website's AI is not licensed to practice law anywhere (and specifically not licensed in Illinois, where MillerKing does its business).

The plaintiff firm alleged that DNP's business activities violated the Lanham Act by creating a false impression that the “robot" lawyer was actually affiliated with licensed attorneys or with the authorities that license attorneys to practice law. The lawsuit also alleged that much of the business that DNP claims to undertake, such as fighting traffic tickets and handling small civil claims, is work that would otherwise be performed by licensed attorneys, such as those who work at MillerKing.

In DNP's defense, it claimed to provide only AI-based legal services and not legal representation, so it could not be considered a true competitor with a law firm like MillerKing. Readily admitting that the "robot lawyer" was not a licensed practitioner, DNP argued that it could not really be classified as an alternative to hiring a lawyer (regardless of how their services are advertised).

According to the pleadings, the AI-based legal services offered by DNP have generated big business. Using the claims of DNP and statements from its CEO as ammunition in the complaint, MillerKing argued that the company boasted of having a quarter-million subscribers and a valuation of over $200 million.

Litigator 3: Rise of the Machine Learning?

The federal court victory was not really a triumph of artificial intelligence of humans, however, because the AI “lawyer" was savvy enough to hire real lawyers to defend its case. DNP was represented by experienced attorneys from prestigious firms based in California and Missouri, and those actual humans made the argument that MillerKing failed to show that DNP's service had caused any injury that would grant the firm standing to sue in federal court.

Although the judge did not endorse the use of robot lawyers or even conclude that such a service did not cause any harm, she did not find that MillerKing had suffered any particularized injury from the operations of DNP. Her decision noted the lack of evidence that any person chose DNP's service instead of hiring a real attorney from MillerKing or that reputational damage to the legal profession as a whole had caused any damage to MillerKing.

The Supreme Court has made it clear that the Constitution prevents litigants from sustaining lawsuits in federal courts without first showing that their claims have “standing," a viable case or controversy that can be redressed by the court, and one requirement for standing is an actual or imminent injury. Essentially, regardless of whether the allegations of MillerKing's suit were true, the case warranted dismissal because the plaintiff firm lacked standing to bring the suit without showing it faced a concrete harm.

DNP's legal troubles are not necessarily over, however, as the company faces a separate federal lawsuit in California from a user who experienced poor results. One can be fairly certain, however, that DNP will not be litigating these matters on its own behalf; even a robot lawyer knows that any lawyer who represents themselves has a fool for a client.

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