Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Mootus: Attorney Collaboration and Reinventing Reputation

Today we feature Adam Ziegler, Co-Founder and CEO of Boston-based Mootus and the Boston Legal Innovation Meetup (more on that later). Mootus hosts a citation-based Q&A platform that facilitates the exchange of legal knowledge and expertise, and brings attorney reputation into the 21st century by helping lawyers build an online legal reputation.

Tell us about yourself:
Before law school, I spent two years as a paralegal and office manager in a solo practitioner's office in DC. After graduating from Michigan Law School in 2002, I clerked on the 6th Circuit and interned with the Appellate Staff of the Civil Division of the Department of Justice. Then, I spent a year at Covington and Burling in DC doing environmental insurance litigation and white collar defense work, and then spent 3 years at Goodwin Proctor in Boston doing large-scale commercial litigation and SEC investigations. I really wanted to be in the courtroom and get the experience of being a trial attorney, and I had no interest in becoming a litigation partner who had never tried a case. Since that opportunity wasn't available in a large firm, I left for a small boutique litigation firm named Donnelly, Conroy & Gelhaar. I loved my experience there, spent plenty of time on my feet in court, and become a partner there in early 2011.

And then what happened?
The firm, people and experience were all terrific, but I had an overriding frustration with the unavoidable fact that so much of my work (and that of others) was redundant and ultimately unnecessary. Like all lawyers, I was continually reinventing the wheel and spending an extraordinary amount of time defending against frivolous arguments. I became obsessed with finding a way to collaborate and share knowledge without betraying the core tenets of the legal profession. That frustration and obsession prompted me to pursue Mootus.

Was there any one experience that made the light bulb go off?
One of my favorite clients was a small, non-profit documentary film company that was sued by a big software company. It was a classic David versus Goliath case--the big company had a problem with what my client said on its website and sued for trademark infringement and defamation. My client ultimately prevailed, but during the litigation it made the decision to post the pleadings from the case online to bring some transparency to the dispute. This got a lot of attention. Lots of trademark experts analyzed the case and weighed-in online in favor of my client. This experience opened my eyes to the possibilities of open-source legal knowledge and crowdsourced legal analysis, and I became very focused on figuring out how to harness that kind of activity to help improve the quality and efficiency of legal work.

So tell me a bit more about Mootus.
Mootus is both a marketplace and repository for legal knowledge. Users can pose concise legal queries, and others can respond by citing primary legal authority. It's not an open-ended Q&A platform; we only accept answers in the form of a citation (and an explanatory parenthetical). Once a response is posted, others can vote the response as “on point” or “off base.” The result is a rich thread of legal debate and conversation, as well as a compendium of citations relevant to a given legal issue. We’re providing a new way to put legal knowledge to work and to tap into the expertise and efforts of lawyers. We also make the content openly accessible on the web to give lawyers a better starting point so they don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel when researching a given issue.

How have you dealt with the ethical issues?
We care a great deal about legal ethics, and we’ve done a few key things to promote ethical behavior. First, we’re very explicit in our terms that if you are looking for legal advice, you should leave our site and go hire a lawyer instead (and tell them to use Mootus to reduce the hours spent on unnecessary research). We are not a lawyer lead generation site. Second, we’ve built the site to be interesting and useful mainly to lawyers. We welcome non-lawyers to view and even interact with the content on our site. It’s our view that lawyers should be more transparent, and the public should have more visibility into what lawyers and courts do. But the reality is that most non-lawyers don’t find legal citations or legal analysis very interesting. Third, all of the questions on our site are anonymous, and the answers are presumptively anonymous and private. So a lawyer can use the site without fearing that she will be publicly associated with her activity on the site unless and until she’s ready to take advantage of the reputational benefits of providing high quality responses.  

One concern I've heard from lawyers not in the "legal startup field" is that the startups are trying to get lawyers to do things in ways that the tech community works, but not how the legal community works. How have you addressed this concern?
Mootus is built to be very similar to what lawyers already do. It’s simulated legal argument. Yes, it's online, yes it's open, but at end of the day, its just like writing a piece of a brief and adding a citation and parenthetical to support an argument. It’s just like finding ways to rebut an adversary’s arguments or to distinguish cases cited by the other side. Good law wins. Persuasive arguments attract support. The lawyers we talk to tell us its very natural because it fits their conception of how the law already works.

What has been your biggest challenge?
Our biggest challenge has been getting lawyers comfortable with the basic notion of being content creators online. The rest of the world is used to saying and doing things online, having an identity online, and liking and interacting with one another. Lawyers have been slow to adapt. Although that’s changing in a big way, for many lawyers online activity is still a little weird. It's still new behavior. Fundamentally, Mootus is trying to get lawyers to transition from being passive consumers of online information to interactive producers of information. That’s no small challenge, but we’re confident in our approach.

What's been your biggest success?
It’s too early for us to claim any success. But I’m proud that we've maintained our focus on what makes lawyers valuable and unique. It’s not always fashionable these days, but we are advocates for lawyers, especially good ones who are committed to delivering high quality services efficiently. We're not coming from outside the industry trying to make the case that lawyers are superfluous and easy to replace. We place great value in lawyers, and we want to help them develop better ways to deliver their services to more clients. In keeping with that philosophy, we try to highlight what's great about lawyers and the law--the notion of authority-based argument, legal hierarchy, and the rule of law, to name a few. I'm very happy that we’ve stayed true to that.

What is your great hope for Mootus?
In a perfect world, Mootus will become an integral part of the legal industry. In the process we’ll elevate the quality of legal work, eliminate waste, create new, profitable opportunities for lawyers to put their law degrees to work, and help lower the cost of providing legal services to those who need them. For lots of reasons, I think the legal industry is in the early stages of a fundamental transformation, and I believe Mootus can be a big part of that.  

I've noticed that Mootus specifically targets students. Why is that?
Two reasons. First, generally speaking, new and aspiring lawyers are more comfortable with online activity, so they’re quicker to understand our vision for the future of legal work. Second, we're trying to make it possible for law students and new graduates to get some practice doing what lawyers do--engaging in legal argument and having the experience of rebutting what someone else says--at volume with high repetition. My view is that in law school, law students are taught how to do it, but they’re not given enough opportunity to practice it. When they graduate, it’s too late for “practice,” and instead they must develop this skill where it really matters, with the client’s interests and dollars on the line. Mootus allows students and grads to develop skills in a safer place where there is less pressure and mistakes can be learning opportunities rather than disasters. As they improve, they can use their online reputation (similar to a portfolio on Github) to market themselves to law firms and clients.

For example, we give users a free profile to describe who they are and to give them stats on how they're doing on the site (i.e. how well answers are received, the number of questions they've answered, site ranking), as well as a portfolio of past activity. Profiles are private by default, but users can make them public when they’re ready to use them for marketing purposes. We believe this type of online legal reputation someday could be more informative and influential than law school grades and law school rankings. It’s our goal to empower new lawyers to take control of their legal reputation and to have the ability to improve that reputation over time based solely on the merit of self-directed activity, independent of exam performance, school pedigree and employment status.

Anything you want to pass on to other entrepreneurs?

I’m an unwavering advocate for legal startups, but I strongly believe in having real legal experience on the team to provide insight into product, customers and strategy. I’m not talking about anybody with a JD – I mean somebody who actually practiced law and advised a lot of real clients. It can take many different forms -- founder, employee, advisor, mentor, investor or whatever. I’ve seen companies without that perspective make some really stupid mistakes, and I think companies with a real first-hand understanding of the way the legal industry works will have the most success in changing it. In my view, it’s different from the typical startup perception that you can disrupt entirely from the outside. In the legal industry, you need deep domain expertise, understanding and depth to get it right. It's like medicine--it's difficult to fix without expertise and knowledge about where the problems and opportunities actually exist. We're not building consumer apps that tap into widespread needs and behaviors common to just about everyone. Instead, we’re delivering products and services to a specific group of highly educated professionals with unique obligations, interests, motivations and values. I welcome new lawyers, and anyone else, to the legal entrepreneurship field, but I strongly believe that to succeed your team should include someone who really knows the legal industry from the inside.

And by the way, I think the reverse is true too. For any lawyers or law students out there, don’t think for a second that you can build something that really matters without having professional technical expertise as a core part of your team. I’m fortunate to have a great technical expert, Jeff Schneller, as my co-founder, and without him Mootus would just be another idea rattling around in my head.   

Anything you want to add?
Just that there is an immense amount of opportunity for innovation in the legal field. I think it’s fantastic that more and more startups (and investors) are pursuing the legal industry, and I hope it continues. Don’t get scared by the stereotype of the risk-averse, technophobic lawyer. Be informed about the important ethical constraints that exist in the legal world, but don’t give up on the possibility of doing something original within those constraints. If your first idea doesn’t pan out, stay at it and find something else. There are way more opportunities than there are people willing and able to take them.

No comments:

Post a Comment