Monday, September 30, 2013

SueWith.Me: Kickstarting Class Actions

Happy lawless, government-less day. Oddly, for the first time in my life, today is the first time that I've been told that I'm not allowed to work. That working is actually illegal. The workaholic inside me is feeling a bit lost and perplexed, but maybe SueWith.Me has a solution! I'd only recently heard of this relatively new startup, but the concept is very exciting! Meet Patrick Cahill of SueWith.Me. Maybe he'll help the rest of the country file a class action against the imbeciles up on Capitol Hill who seem to be unable to do their job today (hey! it could happen!)

Tell me about yourself.
I'd always wanted to have my own business. For the past four years, I've run my own marketing firm that helps professional service firms market their services. I wanted a new challenge though, and have always enjoyed the process of starting something new. 

My father was a police officer, state trooper, and president of the police union. He later on went to Suffolk Law School, so I grew up observing him and how his legal background helped him shape issues that his peers were having trouble with. My mom is part of a union as well as teacher. Their work in unions showed me how business must respond to groups of people that take issue with an injustice. Recently, I've seen my friends and colleagues protesting in public areas, and while I support their efforts, I thought there must be a more effective use of their time. Protesting doesn't seem to have much impact on huge corporations, and I thought there must be a way to organize efforts efficiently and on a national scale.

And you're not a lawyer, right?
No. I didn't make this site with the intention of shaking up how law is practiced, but I did want to create a mechanism for access to justice.

How do you envision this working?
If an individual feels that they have encountered an injustice or are owed damages from a large company or government entity, and if the entity performed an illegal act, the individual can post a description of the case, and we'll let them know whether we will post it or not. We'd use social sharing tools to grow an audience. Others can become a "peer" on these cases for $2.50. We charge $2.50 because we want to make sure people are  passionate about the issue, that the people are real, and the money would go to help fund the lawsuit. It is a small hurdle to overcome, but a hurdle that makes people put their money where their opinions are. There would be multiple "tipping points," i.e. when a certain number of people sign up to a case, it could trigger an attorney review. When the case reaches the final tipping point, we hope to hand the case out to a class action law firm.  We would work with a few law firms to have them pitch to the peers, who would then vote on the firm they want to represent them. 

Have you been working with attorneys on this?
Not yet. The plan is to go forward and see what mistakes we make in the process. I didn't want to approach law firms until we built a legitimate platform with clients signing up. I'd like more legitimacy before approaching the law firms.

How will the recent Supreme Court cases affect you?
My understanding is that the rulings make it harder to group individuals together for a class action suit. Still, my thought is that if thousands of people come together and the law firm spends zero dollars on trying to find plaintiffs, then its still a useful platform. We're just here to provide the masses for the law firms. 

How information do you collect?
We collect the basic contact information. People have to also check a box saying that they think they are affected by the issue and are owed damages. We'd then have the firms pitch to this peer network. Our use doesn't end thought when the case is handed off to the law firm. We also offer a ourselves as a simple communication platform between the law firm and peer network during the case. The law firm can also use SueWith.Me to efficiently get additional information from peers.

How long have you been around?
We publicly announced ourselves two weeks ago. We've been working on this for a few months now. 

Why do you curate the ideas posted on the platform?
We want to maintain some level of quality control. We have three levels--first, we monitor what is or isn't posted on the platform in order to build a good reputation in helping to pursue wrongful cases. Second, peers pay in to help fund an attorney review, and third, attorneys assess the potential of the case. We don't really want to see the "I burned my tongue on coffee" cases."

What's been your greatest challenge?
We want more people to share their ideas and be willing to put them out there to the public. In our first two weeks, we found that lots of people have great ideas, but it takes effort to get people to submit their case ideas. We want people to open up, submit ideas, tell their friends, and then spread the word.

What's been your greatest success?
I read a previous interview on your blog where another founder said its too early to claim success. I feel the same way. However, I do think there are milestones. I got the first email earlier this week from someone I didn't know asking about posting an idea on the site. The case was strangely aligned with someone I felt passionate about. Another milestone was getting an interview request from you.  Those are motiving milestones.

Any advice to the aspiring (legal or non-legal) entrepreneur?
I've started a few businesses, and a couple of them are reasonably successful--but they're all different. My advice would be to overcome the initial inertia. Ask what it takes to get someone to pay for this idea. Its good to share the idea and see if there's enough traction to validate it. Lots of people also stress about the business plan. If you have an idea of where you want to be and what you want to accomplish, forget the 3-5 year goals; instead, create small plans for next month. As you're actually implementing those small plans, you find a lot that shapes your business and makes it better. If you cling too tightly to your initial idea, it will cost you time and money.

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.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Robot, Robot, & Hwang: Community Building for a Legal Refresh

Despite its two robot partners, I enjoyed my conversation with Tim Hwang of Robot, Robot, & Hwang on bringing a human voice to the legal innovation movement.

Read more below about what this part-philosopher, part-lawyer, part-technologist is doing to bring about a legal refresh.

Tell me about yourself.
I was inspired to get into legal technology while I was working a number of years back at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. The origins of the Center are in cyberlaw: the ways in which legal concepts shape the development of technology, particularly with regards to the Internet.

I got interested in the reverse: how technology itself comes back around to shape the practice of law itself. In particular, I got interested in the ways in which the legal industry might one day be upended in the same way that many other information industries like journalism have been.

So I went to law school. I ended up going awkwardly in secret because I was working my way through school -- and it turns out that they won’t hire you if they think you’re in school at the same time. So, I never mentioned it to most people until I graduated three years later!

My long-term goal now is to figure out how to turn Robot, Robot, & Hwang -- a joke website about a law firm run mostly by robots -- into a real firm, run mostly by robots.  

What do you want to build?
Community. One of the things that often gets missed in the Valley is the fact that really important successes happen because there is a robust and diverse ecosystem of friendships and talents supporting the development of a technology. I think if you’re honest about wanting legal technology to be something that changes The Law (capital T, capital L), it behooves you to constantly be trying to bring in the many different types of people that implies -- legal technology folks need to be building bridges to access to justice advocates, designers, sociologists, activists, and everyday people impacted by how the law is made and executed.

What do you see as the biggest challenges in this field?
On the business side, the biggest challenge is that people who are trying to sell their innovations to law firms often face active opposition because it causes obvious problems with the classic models of hourly billing (read more about that here). We’re going to have to find a way to build with this, or build around it.

On the institutional side, there's a question of what happens when legal institutions -- like bar associations -- start taking a look at the mass of fledgling companies starting to rise in the space. If bar associations take a strong tack against these tools on the grounds of unauthorized practice of law as some did in the 1990s, it could be a formidable challenge.

What do you see as your successes so far?
So far, I'm happiest with the fact that there is a growing community of people interested in this space, and that Robot, Robot & Hwang got to play some small role in it. Our first conference -- NELIC -- was in 2010: and it was really small, only about 80 people, maximum. In contrast, for our recent conference -- FutureLaw -- the audience was noticeably bigger, and the products were undoubtedly way more mature.

So what I take from that: our scrappy, nerdy little community is coalescing! My friend Dan Katz likes to talk about these small communities as the Homebrew Computer Club for the law, and I think we’re seeing the truth of that metaphor as the years go by.

Do you think people need to be an attorney to be an entrepreneur in this space?
Tim hesitates. No, I don't know that it’s absolutely necessary that you need to be a lawyer or have a lawyer on board, and it’s obvious that a lot can be learned from non-lawyers. In my mind, this is going to be an empirical question: there are all kinds of legal startups out there right now--some with attorneys on staff and others without--and I think we’ll have to see where the chips fall.

What's the tone with which legal startups should engage the traditional legal community?
The community needs to learn how to articulate a positive agenda. People are often enamored with fighting or disrupting the traditional legal establishment, but the rhetoric often rings hollow because the community hasn't articulated a compelling vision of what they want to replace the traditional system with.

What we're doing has to be constructive. We must know specifically what we want. For example, we can't just say "the legal education system is broken" and leave it at that. We need to articulate what the legal education system needs to be. We can't just say “Biglaw is doomed." We need to have a concrete message what what there should be instead.

Getting to that point might just be a matter of time, but I’m thrilled to be part of a community that is engaging and building that future.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Event in Portland on Innovations in Law

reposting from the U.S. District Court Website for Oregon

Innovations in the Law: Science and Technology

September 20, 2013

9:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. PDT

Portland, Oregon

The Innovations in the Law: Science & Technology conference is presented by the Oregon Chapter of the Federal Bar Association and the Ninth Circuit Lawyer Representatives. This one-day conference will be hosted at the renowned Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) in Portland, Oregon. Through keynote speeches, panel discussions, and pop presentations, a distinguished assembly of industry leaders from across the country will explore a wide range of topics, including improving the delivery of legal services, innovations in the courts, gaps in the law, and how the public's use of technology impacts law enforcement.
Click the links at the bottom of the page or the menu on the left for more information. 

Welcome Letter from Chief Judge Aiken

As Chief Judge for the District of Oregon, and in partnership with the Oregon Chapter of the Federal Bar Association and the Ninth Circuit Lawyer Representatives, it is my pleasure to invite you to the 2013 District of Oregon Conference: "Innovations in the Law: Science & Technology." This conference, the first of its kind in Oregon, will be held at the renowned Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) on September 20 in Portland, Oregon.
It is well known that change is the only constant in life. As members of the legal field, we need to apply this maxim and start approaching how we do our work differently, if only because the world is moving so fast. Accordingly, the aim of this event is to facilitate novel and thought-provoking discussions regarding how the integration of law and technology will enable us to look forward and identify new solutions, shaped out of creativity and collaboration. It is our privilege to host industry leaders and legal professionals, from all over the country, who will deliver the most current and advanced information on law, science, and technology. Please come join us for what will surely be a groundbreaking and sensational event!
A sincere thank you to the team who helped put this conference together – it was truly a collaborative effort and a pleasure to work with each of you.
Chief Judge Ann Aiken
HT @marcidale @popvox for the heads up!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Consumers are Online (Are the Attorneys?)

76 percent of consumers went online to find a lawyerThis is an older article, but still important. The Pew Research Center found that in 2011, 3 out of 4 consumers seeking an attorney over the last year used online resources at some point in the process.

The internet and mobile phones have changed the way people do things. So while consumers are going online to find attorneys, the attorneys are... hiding offline? Read more here.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 Providing Open-Sourced Annotations for Transactional Documents

Today we feature Chris Murphy, co-founder of  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 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
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 do? 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? 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. 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
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.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

AttorneyFee: Revolutionizing the Law Firm's Cash Flow

It's always fun to meet someone with similar interests and background as yourself, especially when you're a lawyer NOT practicing law. Then, there are the people that really blow you away and make your jaw drop at their sheer amazingness. Meet Richard Komaiko, co-founder and CEO of AttorneyFee. His CrunchBase profile describes him as a "policy wonk turned technologist turned crusader for access to justice" who writes books during his down time and speaks four languages (Spanish, Hebrew, Mandarin, Shanghainese). Now, I was once a Foreign Affairs Officer for the State Department and my daily bread and butter is in international economic policy, but even I can't top that. Read more below to find how how Richard plans to turn the traditional law firm business model on its head.

Tell me about yourself.
Like you, I spent some time in DC working on U.S.-China relations. During my time on the Hill, I wrote a book entitled "Lawyers in Modern China" which analyzes rule of law and the legal landscape in China. When it got published, I figured I should probably go to law school since I had written a book on the law. While I was in law school, the market fell apart and I knew I had to look for alternatives to the traditional practice of law. I worked on AttorneyFee, which at the time was just a project with a couple of friends, and we kept pivoting until we were viable.

You never wanted to practice law?
I would not be a very good lawyer. I'm not barred. Even for attorney fee, while I initially did a lot of the legal work for the startup myself, I ended up outsourcing a lot of the legal work. I learned a lot from that experience that I'm not good at practicing law.

Do you think you need to have had practiced law to start a legal startup?

How did AttorneyFee start?
Our first idea for AttorneyFee was a platform where potential clients could describe a problem, post it, and find a lawyer. There was no barrier to entry. We realized that it would be a failing model because it inevitably led to a race to the bottom.  We did find out, though, that price discovery was a component that people liked. Clients don't want to waste their time telling a lawyer about their problems when they might not be able to afford the attorney in the end. It leads to a lot of back and forth communication. Clients just want to know prices. We used technology to cull the web and find prices for 30,000 attorneys and published that data. It was really hard to try and extrapolate what the dollar signs meant because it really could mean anything. Eventually, we organized that data so that users could see a visual histogram of pricing for attorneys in a certain region. You can see outliers and where attorneys tend to cluster in terms of median pricing. Now we only publish data on aggregated basis. 

What's the most interesting thing you've discovered from this data?
We collaborated with researchers at the Brookings Institution to figure out which variables drive an attorney's fees. We submitted all pricing data and what we thought would be dependent and independent variables (i.e. law school, location, number of years as a practitioner, firm or solo practitioner). One day, the researcher called me and told me that there was a problem with the data. After lengthy analysis, he found that location determined 40% of the price, and experience determined 10% of the price. But there was no statistical significant for the other independent variables. However, the data wasn't wrong. Instead, the study ultimately concluded that 50% of the variation in attorney fee pricing is purely made up. So essentially, attorney fee pricing is bullshit. This study will be published in the American Journal of Economics later this year.

What's been your greatest challenge?
Our greatest challenge is probably the same challenge as every law startup out there--building a sustainable business. It's really hard. The revenue coming in has to be more than the capital flowing out. It's already hard to raise money and find funding; it's even harder to build a sustainable business. I've probably seen some ten other law startups go up and out of existence.

Any advice to budding legal entrepreneurs then?
Focus on building a business. Stop thinking about disrupting the industry. Theoretical and philosophical ponderings are nice, but they don't ultimately matter.

What's your goal for AttorneyFee?
We want to get into the business of law. We see hundreds of law firms buying marketing service in order to find new customers, but getting the customers to pay is as big a challenge as getting customers in the first place. We see a huge issue with cash flow in the legal practice. Sometimes customers don't have enough money for a retainer and attorneys find themselves need to take the case on credit. However, most law firms do not have lines of credit or collection departments. That's what we want to get into. We took our inspiration to innovations in capital happening in the medical field, and are gearing up this October to release our mobile platform that will front the money for clients to pay the attorney. We will then collect from the client over time. This injects law firms with liquidity. This requires a lot of financial expertise and capital. Moreover, the entire transaction is instantaneous. Cases will be approved or rejected in a matter of seconds. We believe that a client walking into a law firm to procure legal services is much like the customer who walks to a car dealership to buy a car. Once that customer walks off the lot, the possibility of them returning to buy the car is small. By allowing instantaneous approvals, we let lawyers close the transaction.

What are the ethical implications to this idea?
Attorneys do have ethical obligations to not file frivolous suits, but ethics don't really come into play here. This mostly revolved around the consumer's acknowledgement of the obligation to return the money. 

What has been your relationship with consumers? Attorneys?
Consumers like us a lot, because they can't get the information we provide anywhere else. They also appreciate that it's free. Attorneys tend to fall in one of three camps: 1) the ones who see us as the apocalypse towards the commodification of their jobs; 2) the ones who love us. 10,000 attorneys return to AttorneyFee periodically to check trends in pricing and adjust their own to be more competitive; and 3) ambivalent. Some just don't care. 

What's in store for the future of AttorneyFee?
We have a clear vision of our future. We're planning 10 new hires in the next days. We're increasing our bandwidth and investing lots of month in our growth over the next six months. We are preparing to do something very disruptive and novel in the legal industry.

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.