Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Lawful.ly: Providing Open-Sourced Annotations for Transactional Documents

Today we feature Chris Murphy, co-founder of Lawful.ly  He perfectly articulated what seems to be the catch-22 in the legal startup field. Legal startups are very different from other startup sectors because they really need some basis of legal experience to go off of. At the same time, the old guard with the experience isn't willing, for the most part, to adopt new innovations, while the younger attorneys are open to it, but lack the experience. "The key," Chris says, "is for the young lawyers to correctly pinpoint the problem."

Tell me about yourself.
I went to law school late in life, and was a technical consultant before that. I'm a transactional attorney by day, and Lawful.ly is a side project for now. When I started practicing law, I couldn't help but notice how inefficient it was in many ways.  To an extent, I am or was naive to the legal business, so I'm not steeped so deep in the legal tradition that I'm afraid to ask "it's making money, why would I change it?"  I think that complacency brought on by big profits is what makes the legal industry so ripe for disruption.

How did you come up with the idea for Lawful.ly?
At my company, they didn't pay for general access to Lexis Nexis or Westlaw. Consequently, I was trying to double check on some specific language free online and I found that there is a dearth of legal information--or at least good legal information--on the internet. This didn't make sense to me because anywhere else, we can just go to the web and figure out what our problems are.  You can even use WebMD and similar free sites for medical information, which is also a regulated area. But with law, its so hard to find vetted, approved legal information. Bradley had been running into similar issues, and after a few times talking, we decided we should take a crack at trying to be the ones who fixed this issue.

I've talked to other attorneys since then, and looking from the standpoint of a small law firm or solo attorney, they've told me that they run into this issue regularly.  While they're experts in certain areas of law, it would feel uncomfortable having to dive into another field without resorting to, and being charged for, Lexis Nexis or WestLaw, and there is no other way to obtain this information quickly and easily.  We know that for just about every other industry there are websites where you can look up the collective public wisdom, but there really is nothing like that for the law. 

What's has been your inspiration? 
Bradley and I were huge fans of Docracy, which markets itself as the GitHub for legal documents. Docracy has been great at collecting documents, but we found that I didn't want to go through fifty of them to find a good document.  This is significantly more problematic if you are not an attorney and looking to find a good agreement to use.  I thought there must be a better way to tackle this general problem. 

What problem are you trying to tackle?
In our market research, we found that everyone looks for legal documents on the web, including attorneys. 85% of people with legal problems don't talk to an attorney--only 15% do. I think it must be because of the reputation that the legal profession has made for itself. Bradley and I spend lots of time undoing bad agreements. We wanted to find a find a way to keep laypeople from shooting themselves in the foot with bad contracts from online resources or elsewhere, and to arm them to speak to an attorney. As well, we wanted to provide an affordable, modern resource for attorneys who are looking for specific legal information – something in between the Westlaws and Lexis/Nexis's of the world, but definitely above Listservs and the like which are still constantly used by lawyers. 

So what does Lawful.ly do?
Lawful.ly has curated documents with annotated explanations that allow you to get the info you need on those documents. Each annotation is ideally 3-5 sentences (and no more than one paragraph), and you can link it to something else online which provides greater detail if you like. We're providing legal information in a method thats digestable, vetted, and consumer friendly. We think this is important and even in line with the access to justice movement to make legal information freely available, because we're all affected by the law. We want to simplify information and make it available to the public. People shouldn't have to go to law school or pay $500/hr to educate themselves on the laws that affect them in their everyday lives.

There has been a lot of fear-mongering about some sites likes ours, but we want to be very clear that we're not trying to put lawyers out of business. We are trying to return attorneys to being counselors. Instead paying attorneys hundreds of dollars an hour to ask them "what do I do?", we should have clients that ask us specific, pointed questions instead of coming to us for general education. In that way, I believe attorneys will be providing more value to clients.

Any other similar startups?
A similar startup, CaseText, has the same idea of annotating legal texts, but they are doing that to case law.  I think we have very similar ideas, but focused on solving different problems, or at least problems for different customer segments.  We are supportive of anyone trying to innovate in the legal arena, however, and have found the legal innovation community to be really supportive of just about all ideas and companies.

What was your initial idea?
Lawful.ly is actually pretty close to the initial concept. I had been looking for an explanation on the web for some standard legal language that was being used in a different context, but couldn't find anything helpful without going to one of the legal research services. It was really hard to find anything on the web on the topic at all.  

Generally, I think that standard transactional documents ought to be open-sourced.  However, even with that, there are big gaps between having the document (which you easily find online) and understanding what it means and how it affects you. I found out that its hard to find good legal information unless you want to pay thousands of dollars. Lawful.ly is targeting the community of solo/small firms and end users who wouldn't or couldn't pay that amount anyway.

How are you planning to monetize?
We are still investigating a number of routes to monetize. We're committed to the idea that the access to information must remain free. However, we don't want to make this a non-profit, at least at this stage, since we feel that brings on some burdensome administrative duties and limits certain options and opportunities.

What has been your biggest success?
We've gotten really good responses from the people we talked to about this. Every person we talk to, including most attorneys who are younger and more open, really understand the need. When we talked to people at SXSW they totally got it! It's nice to have an idea where its clear that there's a gap in the market. We've also been able to get a number of attorneys on board. 

How old is Lawful.ly?
We launched our private beta in July 2013. We anticipate moving to a public beta soon, but we want to add a few more features first.

What has been your biggest challenge?
Time and funding. Time because its a side business, and funding because we're bootstrapping it. There are some revenue models out there that we believe will absolutely work, but they requires a certain minimum set of users to prove it out.  We need to be able to get to a certain level of traction on our own funding before we can attract outside investors.

How are you attracting users?
Bradley and I have tried to cultivate a select group for our private beta through social media and our community ties. Bradley is very active in social media, and we're both connected in the local legal community. We wanted 100-200 attorney users, and not just laymen, because we wanted people to provide real feedback. We are intentionally trying not to blow it out yet. We're focused on depth and getting good commentary. We want to be deep, not wide.

Any advice for the aspiring legal entrepreneur?
Do your market research. Always ask, don't just go on a hunch. Hunches are a great way to get started, but you need to verify everything. Ask 50 different people in each of your target markets. I had tried to do another startup in a different area, and one of many lessons I learned is to make sure you're really tackling a pain people have, and not just something you think is a problem. Otherwise, you may end up building something people don't need.

Anything else?

If you start a legal startup, do it in the name of changing the way lawyers provide service so that it enhances the client's experience. This profession has to evolve and there is fantastic opportunity out there. Hopefully we'll be part of it. Change will happen. Successful lawyers in the future will either be part of that change, or at least embrace the change and get pulled along with the tide. If not, they may end up being washed out.

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