Friday, September 27, 2013

Lawdingo: The Non-Lawyer, Non-Engineer Changing the Legal Landscape

I was able to meet up with Nikhil Nirmel recently during a trip to NYC. We had previously met at the CodeX Conference, and he was one of the nicest people I'd met, so I figured I'd ask him for an interview on top of coffee. Lawdingo is a Y-Combinator backed startup that's recently moved from San Francisco to NYC. 

Before we get into the interview though, check out his hilarious commercial.  Cracks me up every time.

Tell me about yourself.
I started a company, Lawdingo, with the belief that I could get the legal industry online starting with initial legal consultations. I was the research lead at Yelp and an early employee of Yodle. I studied Operations and Information Management at Penn's Wharton School, and went through Y Combinator earlier this year. I'm 27 and as of recently I live in New York City. For some reason, I'm obsessed with building communications products.

What does Lawdingo do?
Lawdingo lets people find, talk to and work with lawyers online. We're creating a national network of attorneys who operate the virtual part of their practice through Lawdingo. This people gives people who just need to talk to a lawyer a huge amount of convenience. In just a few clicks and minutes they can be on the phone with an appropriate attorney, and in a few more clicks they can have entered into an attorney-client relationship with that lawyer, all online and all in one place.

How does Lawdingo connect people?
We're able to provide consumers with the experience of being on the phone with a lawyer who is familiar with the laws surrounding their particular need, literally two minutes after having come to the website, anywhere in the country, for free. How we manage to do that is our little secret, but I'll say that we've done some pretty crazy stuff with telephony, calendar integrations and payments.

Do you find working the legal startup space difficult as a non-lawyer?
Surprisingly not. I think in general, insiders of any industry are quick to mistake the way things are with the way things are meant to be. As an analytical outsider with nothing to lose I can examine the legal industry more objectively and spot a bunch of obvious ways it should be better. Also, as someone who to this day still knows quite little about the law itself, I've built a product that assumes you know nothing about the law too, and that makes for a more widely-appealing experience.

Any ethical considerations?
Sure, yeah, I certainly considered the rules of legal ethics as I designed the product. Specifically, we're not splitting fees, there are no referrals per the definition of a referral, and the company itself doesn't provide legal advice. And for participating lawyers, it's their responsibility to use the same level of professional responsibility with Lawdingo clients as they would with clients who they meet through any other means.

What we do is facilitate the discovery, communication and transactions between consumers and licensed attorneys. From a user experience perspective, the way we've combined these processes is just magical, but from the specific standpoint of legal ethics, there's nothing new here, and that's by design.

What's your biggest challenge?
I would say that figuring out the right economic model while trying to scale has been a challenge. It's complicated because we're facilitating initial legal consultations, which for both parties is of huge value, but is traditionally offered for free. That's compounded by our need to have great lawyer and client coverage in every state in every practice area right off the bat. you can't charge for inclusion if you want to build a big network. You also can't charge for transactions because they will happen off the platform anyway and are hard to track.

So how do you make money? 
All lawyers want to grow their practice. We provide them with high quality, paying clients that they couldn't get any other way. They're literally stealing business from bigger firms because increasingly, consumers prefer the convenience of Lawdingo to the vastness of larger firms.

How about clients who want a good lawyer?
Good is subjective! We try to help users define what good is for them. For some it's other users' ratings, and we have a whole reputation system that does that. For others it's price, proximity to them, immediate availability or something else, and we have lots of filters for all of those. As of very recently, users can also connect their LinkedIn account to see which lawyers they share common connections with.

Functionality aside, I've found that a lawyers' interpersonal skills seem to have a lot more to do with a client's assessment of a lawyer than does the lawyer's intimate knowledge of the law. And I think that even in a quick 5 to 10 minute phone call, both a lawyer and a client can get a sense for the character of the person on the other line. All this makes Lawdingo a great tool for finding the right fit between clients and lawyers without the hassle of driving from law office to law office.

What's your greatest success so far?
By number of lawyers on the platform, Lawdingo would now be a among the top 25 law firms in the world. And it's still just me running everything! So that's pretty cool.

As an entrepreneur, is it hard being solo?
Yes, it's hard. I work insane hours, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I'd like to be the poster child for a whole new way of running a business. Instead of just doing things that need to get done, I try to spend most of my work time putting in places processes that get things done. Importantly, I also think being solo means you can attack a very specific vision free of compromise. I think co-founders' need for agreement produces companies that may sometimes lack clarity of purpose.

If you're not a coder, how do you get the coding done?
I get coding the same way I get done anything I can't do. I get an advisor who knows how to think about it and I contract people who know how to actually do it . So with coding, I have an excellent technical advisor and excellent developers all over the world. It's almost a truism in the startup world that this never works, but I think the quality of my product is evidence to the contrary.

That said, I wouldn't recommend that children try this at home. I happen to have years of experience failing miserably at this, but by now I've sort of become an expert in managing a dispersed global product team.

What advice might you have to aspiring legal entrepreneurs?
Give up and join Lawdingo instead! Ok, just kidding. I think good advice might be to be aware of the weird economic incentives underlie that lawyers' behavior. For example, having time means less billable hours, giving free advice means the potential to land big clients, and so on. My other advice, which isn't specific to legal startups, is to always out-product your competition. Be really specific about how your product adds value. Great products feel invisible, like they aren't even there, and that takes a huge amount of work to achieve.

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