Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Lawdingo Raises $690K

Congratulations to Nikhil Nirmel of Lawdingo, who just raised $690K! You can read more at the TechCrunch article here, and read our previous interview with him here.

Juicy bits here:

The new funding comes from angel investors (and funds run by angel investors) including Nathaniel Stevens, Kartik Hosanagar, Gene Alston, Altair Capital, Atsany Captial, and Andrew Moroz. It brings Lawdingo’s total funding to $850,000.

One of the more popular features [...] is the ability to “get a call now” — Lawdingo can instantly connect users with a relevant lawyer by phone. Lawyers provide Lawdingo with their availability, so when a request comes in, the system reaches out to the ones who are available and have relevant expertise until it finds one who’s free to talk.
The business model has also been tweaked, with Lawdingo abandoning a plan where lawyers bid to promote their listings. The company has since gone back to the flat subscription fee that it started out with.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

MyRight, LegalCrunch, Legitimo: A Journey of Two Serial Legal Entrepreneurs

I really enjoyed this next interview with NYC-based Keval Amin and Nikhil Jhunjhnuwala. They're already on project number three of what I'm sure will be many more exciting law startup projects to come.

Tell me about yourselves
We’ve known each other since fifth grade, since we lived a couple of houses away from each other. I think we met on the school bus. We also both went to Rutgers together, and then parted ways—Keval went to design school, and Nikhil went to law school at USC. Keval’s original idea was to do industrial design for things like plates and silverware. While learned about that process, he learned about how business works. Nikhil was in law school for his 1L year and realized that the law isn’t very complicated—it just needs to be simplified for lay people.

I know you guys have a lot of projects going on, so tell me about those.
In 2011, our first company was MyRight—a WebMD of law. WebMD has a symptom checker, and Nikhil had this idea of seeing whether the common person could put in symptoms and get an answer. Through talking to Keval, we were able to synthesize something real.  We got into StartEngine, an LA accelerator program, for that, and were able to get cash and mentorship to shape the company. We were too ambitious though, and really needed more cash than we’d originally thought. After the technical cofounder left in January 2013, we decided to pivot.

We then started LegalCrunch, an expungement service. For those unfamiliar with expungement, if you have a criminal record, expunging the record essentially clears criminal history from public record. We developed in a matter of weeks an automated system where people with criminal records can take an eligibility test using several factors to determine whether we can help them with their expungement. If so, the system will generate paperwork for the customer to sign and mail. In less than a year, we’re already generating revenue with LegalCrunch in just New Jersey and Ohio.

Recently, we created Legitimo, a mobile app targeting the Spanish-speaking population that helps people do contracts. It came randomly—we had just moved to New York, and there was a Spanish-language themed hackathon sponsored by a Latino organization. We wanted to get involved in the startup scene, so we showed up and came up with the idea at the Hackathon. The app can create a simple contract in under a minute in both Spanish and English.

Legitimo is Spanish for “legit.” In our market testing, the latino community would read our company name and understand it. In fact, our tagline is “it’s legit.”
We’re targeting a demographic that tends to be a cash-based community that really needs legal protection. When Nikhil was in law school he used to volunteer at several legal aid clinics, and anyone who spoke Spanish was an invaluable asset.

Tell me a bit about what you learned from the MyRight experience.
We learned so much, it’s hard to know where to begin. By far, we learned that failing is not a reason to stop doing what someone is really passionate about. We could have quit when our tech cofounder left, but we’re passionate about legal innovation and creating a company. After just one month of LegalCrunch, we were already making small amounts of revenue. We also got a lot of perspective—there’s lots of room for innovation in law, but it’s also more difficult to introduce that innovation than in other industries. Lawyers and bar associations push back, and you have to deal with lawyers who are litigious by nature. But despite all the obstacles, we still stay because of the potential for impact and change.

Now that you’re done with MyRight, do you think a WebMD of law is feasible?
I think it’s feasible. It takes a lot more investment of resources and energy than we initially thought it would. MyRight is something we’d like to put out there and integrate with something we do in the future. It’s not very far-fetched or crazy technology. Others are doing something similar in a narrower sense. Our biggest weakness was that we lacked a business model—we were giving people free information, but there was no solid business plan at the time, so we had to pivot. Whereas with LegalCrunch, we put a website up and created a kit in a few weeks without too much planning.

Expungements have a very narrow target market. How do you advertise?
We’ve learned to respond to the things our target demographic looks for. Whereas MyRight targeted a board range of legal topics, LegalCrunch is narrower. We write articles to be ranked in SEO by Google, and are also using Pay Per Click (PPC). We also partner with lots of lawyers—usually solo practitioners.

Are you looking to expand into other topics aside from expungement?
Maybe later. We’re using expungement as an entry point into document automation, but there’s already a lot on our plate.

Why did you start off in New Jersey and Ohio?
We’re from New Jersey. Ohio recently passed an expungement law that made more people eligible than before, so it was a good opportunity.

How does UPL figure into your startup?
You have to address UPL if you are a law startup, but we’re not practicing law. We are an information service and document preparation service.

What’s been your greatest challenge?
In a startup, you have to wear a lot of different hats, play lots of different roles, and you’re always thrown in to something you don’t know anything about. It’s not easy. Also, in law, there’s not a lot of leeway to do innovative things. It’s hard to market law and it’s not very fun. All the other legal websites out there try to create an aura of credibility or authority, but that’s not really in line with our personality. We want to make law accessible, not intimidating or scary, but it’s hard to change people’s perceptions. There are surveys out there in which 70-80% of consumers have a negative reaction when law is mentioned. We try to position LegalCrunch to instill some confidence in consumers, but still have dinosaurs and fun characters on the website to give people a sense of comfort.

Conversely, what’s been your greatest success?
There are so many tiny wins, but to us, they’re huge wins. Little milestones add up. For example, we were thrilled when we got our first customer, and when we helped clear our first person’s expungement. People have come to us and said, “you are my only hope. I can’t afford a lawyer.” We try the best we can without committing UPL by being a helpful resource. A number of people have told us that they didn’t know where else to turn to. They were so grateful, and those thank yous are very motivating. We’re also thrilled we’ve been able to gain credibility in just a few months. Government agencies, probation officers, and unemployment offices have started to refer customers to us. It’s slow, but it’s happening.

Any advice to aspiring legal entrepreneurs?
Don’t give up.  You’ll probably fail a lot and get frustrated, but the more failures you have, the more you success you may have in the future. There are a lot of obstacles in this field, but you’re making real change. It’s easy to make a social app or cat website, but its more fulfilling and challenging to be in this field. We need more legal startups out there.

How have you two managed to sustain yourselves financially throughout this process?
We had about 9 months worth of investment money for MyRight. We moved back home to sustain LegalCrunch, though eventually moved to (and currently live in) New York City, which has afforded us a number of opportunities in the law tech space, including starting Legitimo. For those contemplating doing a regular job or side job, make sure its something easy that you enjoy, since you’ll be doing that 9-5 and still have to come home and work some more. Don’t do something you don’t care about. Many people with side jobs still work in law during the day. We also have moved home. It’s not too bad. It’s best if you have a clear vision. You really get to understand who you are as a person. You’ll have a lot of doubts, and there will always be mornings when you wake up and ask, “why am I doing this? I could have been normal.” It’s easy to give up, but we want to let others out there contemplating a law startup that it’s okay to move up and give up a normal lifestyle.

Nikhil, any plans to return to law school?

Maybe. It’s not something that’s out of the question. I’m not sure I’d practice law, but I wouldn’t be opposed to just finishing the degree.

Friday, October 25, 2013

PlainLegal: Combining an Online Marketplace with Workflow Tools

Apologies for a little gap in writing. It's taken a little while to settle in after my move to LA, but I promise we have some interesting articles in the pipeline! Today's article features former Biglaw attorney, now legal entrepreneur Nehal Madhani of PlainLegal, based out of NYC.

Tell me about PlainLegal.
PlainLegal is a marketplace that makes it easy for businesses to work with trusted lawyers. We show businesses relevant lawyers that can solve their legal problems and provide workflow tools for both sides that increase efficiency and transparency. Each lawyer on PlainLegal is screened to ensure a certain level of quality. We look for lawyers who understand the legal needs of their clients, communicate in plain English, and can efficiently deliver high-quality services at affordable rates. Our platform is unique because we combine a curated marketplace of lawyers with tools that make it easier for clients and lawyers to work together. 

What does the process look like for the customer?
PlainLegal streamlines the legal process. First, a customer describes their legal issue in plain English. From there, we show relevant lawyers that can help with that problem (we have a thorough screening process that each lawyer must go through before being accepted). Next, we provide a simple form that helps the entrepreneur explain their legal need to the lawyer. Once the lawyer and entrepreneur have agreed to work together, we provide access to simple workflow tools that increase the efficiency and transparency of the legal process for the customer. Through our research, we identified several pain points throughout the life of the legal project, so we built our workflow tools to eliminate those points of friction.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from all your market research?
Customers seem to face similar problems that cause them to avoid dealing with their legal problems. The first is identifying the legal problem. The second is finding a good, affordable lawyer. The third is actually working with that lawyer. We address each one of those problems with our marketplace and platform.

What makes a good lawyer?
For us, good lawyers are those who have relevant experience, communicate with customers in plain English, and provide clear, actionable steps to address legal issues.

How do you increase the efficiency of the legal process?
We have tools that streamline key aspects of the lawyer-client relationship such as communication and document management tools. For lawyers, we also enable them to create and upload engagement letters as well as collect payments.

What’s been your greatest challenge so far?
It’s the same as most other online marketplaces -- growing both sides at the right pace and avoiding a chicken-and-egg problem. We’ve addressed the chicken-and-egg problem with productivity tools that lawyers can use with their existing clients as well. 

What’s been your greatest success so far?
We’re still early in our process, but I’m happy to have helped our initial customers connect with a lawyer that solved their legal problems. Some of our customers had a tight deadline, and we were able to immediately connect them with the right lawyer.

How were you able to find your initial customer base?
Our first customers came from direct outreach, word of mouth, and referrals from other customers. 

How have you been able to handle the tech part the startup?
I learned how to program and developed our prototype. Recently, I’ve brought on a full-time developer to take over the tech side so that I can spend more time building the business.

Any advice to the aspiring legal entrepreneur?
Be patient and willing to understand/adapt to your constituents within the industry. Too many entrepreneurs (not just in the legal space) are intent on "disrupting" an industry. We should be building something that helps all parties.

What is your vision for either your startup, or the legal industry as a whole?
I have a few goals—I want legal services to be easy and affordable. I’d also like to see businesses start taking a preventative approach instead of a reactive approach to their business. As part of that, I’d like to see legal advice being regarded as a strategic and valuable element of a business. 

There are many great entrepreneurs working on problems in the space. I’m excited to see where the legal industry will go in the next 5-10 years, and I believe that we can make a meaningful impact on the accessibility of legal services. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What is a "law startup"? + Crowdsourcing a law startup directory

In attempting to start a list of law or legal startups (what's the proper term?), it is a challenge in and of itself to clearly define what constitutes a "law or legal startup." What is a law startup, and what is it not?

I personally have no clear guidelines, and would rather be over-than-under inclusive. Some startups are tech-heavy, others are non-profits and civic engagement mechanisms, and still others are advocacy organizations. I'm open to all groups, so long as they're interested in innovation of the law, the practice of law, or access to law. I'm particularly interested in groups that want to find new ways of doing old things.

I would note though that I'm not very interested in groups that sell law practice technology to lawyers unless its distinguishable different or innovative. There are tons of companies selling run-of-the-mill software to lawyers or e-discovery firms, but feel free to comment and debate if as to whether you agree or disagree.

Lastly, I'm sharing the list of law-related startups that I've come across in the hopes that the community will contribute. Feel free to add in your own group, or groups that you've come across. It seems as if there's been an explosion of law-related startups in the last two years. Certainly, the recession resulting in jobless lawyers was a catalyst. Maybe, as we collect more information, evidence of that trend will become more clear. Don't be offended if you're not already on the list--this is my first attempt to organize information and get a clearer picture of the community.

Here's the link to the GoogleDoc: