AI Cited for Unlicensed Practice of Law A web-based "expert system" that helped users prepare bankruptcy filings for a fee made too many decisions to be considered a clerical tool, an appeals court said last week, ruling that the software was effectively practicing law without a license.At issue were two websites maintained by entrepreneur Henry Ihejirika -- Ziinet.com and 700law.com -- which offered automated bankruptcy assistance. That sounded good to consumer Jayson Reynoso, who paid $219 for 60 days of access to the "Ziinet Bankruptcy Engine," described on the websites like this:Ziinet is an expert system and knows the law. Unlike most bankruptcy programs which are little more than customized word processors the Ziinet engine is an expert system. It knows bankruptcy laws right down to those applicable to the state in which you live. Now you no longer need to spend weeks studying bankruptcy laws.Reynoso entered his personal information, debts, income, assets and other data into a series of dialog boxes, and the program generated a complete set of bankruptcy forms, including an affidavit for Reynoso to sign claiming he'd done all the legal research on his own. (Yes, like meat-lawyers, the Ziinet Bankruptcy Engine knows how to gild the lily a little.)When a bankruptcy trustee noticed errors in the forms, Reynoso blamed his computerized counsel, and Ihejirika joined the party in federal court. A bankruptcy judge ruled that Ihejirika had committed fraudulent, unfair, or deceptive conduct through his computer program, and had engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.Ihejirika was fined, enjoined from offering the same service in the future, and ordered to give up the fees he'd collected from nine customers in Northern California. He appealed, and last week the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling.The software did, indeed, go far beyond providing clerical services. It determined where (particularly, in which schedule) to place information provided by the debtor, selected exemptions for the debtor and supplied relevant legal citations. Providing such personalized guidance has been held to constitute the practice of law.(...)(The) system touted its offering of legal advice and projected an aura of expertise concerning bankruptcy petitions; and, in that context, it offered personalized -- albeit automated -- counsel. ... We find that because this was the conduct of a non-attorney, it constituted the unauthorized practice of law.Ihejirika had a human lawyer for his defense.
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