This post originally appeared on Quora.
LawPal was an amazing journey for everyone involved which sadly did not work out. I've yet to write about the evolution of the company but here goes...
Here is my personal experience of the 3 main stages of the company.
1. Document Assembly
The original idea for LawPal was a document assembly service that would give consumers access to a wide range of largely commoditized legal documents for free. Similar to the document assembly UXs employed by Legal Zoom and Rocketlawyer, LawPal would allow users to quickly spin off a wide range of documents, execute them online and then buy related services. Our hypothesis was that the creation of legal documents usually coincides with major life events and people could be upsold related services including financial products.
We built a rough prototype of this system and began to seek out quality content (forms). It became increasingly clear that the primary market for free forms were not people who were currently using lawyers but rather people that were currently not doing anything at all. We came to the conclusion that this was a particularly difficult audience to build a business around and a pivot was required. The output of this Q&A process was particularly poor and often left the consumer in a worse position than doing nothing at all. (Shake legal has executed well on this idea)
2. Startup Legal Services Marketplace
The idea we moved to (and launched) was a match making and workflow platform for startups and their attorneys. Startups would come to LawPal, fill out a short on-boarding questionnaire and then either pick a pre-priced legal service if eligible (formation, seed etc) or get a custom quote. They would then be given a range of lawyers to pick from. Once matched, we would introduce efficiencies in the attorney-client relationship by helping them work online through a transaction checklist (a list of documents required to complete the deal).
This was interesting. We matched a range of startups with legal council and were successful in both getting them great fixed fees on their initial work and helping them work (a little bit) more efficiently. (Horribly difficult to monetize due to fee splitting regs).
Problems arose on two main fronts. The first was that larger firms were deferring fees for initial legal work to win clients. Founders time and time again were not seeing this credit line as a real expense as it would be called in at a time in the future when (they thought) everything would be rainbows and kittens and they could pay it with the swipe of a pen (or not at all). Experienced founders were the exception here. The lure of big firms with shiny offices also played a part here. Big firms would offer introductions to angel investors but as an inexperienced valley angel pointed out, an introduction from a lawyer is quite often one of the weakest for an early stage company and this offer rarely comes good (there are exceptions!).
The second was that whilst we were fixing the fees for legal work, the scope of work would invariably change (undisclosed agreements, founder changes etc) and this would frustrate the relationship. The Uber for Law model we were trying to create (sorry - a cliché i know) was not just not sympathetic to the realities of the legal consumer/supplier dynamic.
3. Trello for Law
We liked the efficiency part of the business more than the match making piece and decided to double down on that. I traveled to a small town in Germany and my co-founder Ross and I hammered out a revised version of the platform that removed the matchmaking piece of offering and focus on the efficiency part. We launched at the 2014 ABA tech show in chicago.
The idea was traffic control for legal documents, a layer top of cloud storage/DMS. From client intake to internal draft to client review and eventual execution, LawPal would give everyone involved in the transaction visibility on their piece and tasks they needed to complete (review this, sign this etc).
It was a really nice piece of software. Clean, fast - for the technically minded a Django backend with an AngularJS gui on the front. It integrated with crocodoc's document annotation tools and hellosign.
The product launched, gained a little traction and a lot of feedback but ultimately not enough to sustain a viable business. We closed end of 2014. There were a few factors that contributed to it's closing :
1. Email - I can't overstate this: Lawyers live in email and despite doing deeper and deeper integration into email clients we failed to ween them off this habit. If a client wants to reach their lawyer, they are going to ping them in an email, not use a platform, no matter how elegant. We contemplated getting really sophisticated and giving lawyers LawPal integrated email addresses but it felt like a unchangeable behavior (i'm sure this will eventually change).
2. Team Fatigue - Founders are supposed to be superhuman but sometimes it's just really hard to carry on with something when there is hardly any traction. At the end of this third iteration we decided to call it a day. We couldn't, hand on heart, go back to investors for more money. I've had enough things work and enough to fail to know when there is a future in a project.
3. The small firm//big firm casm - We found that buying behavior and mindset of big firms and small firms were totally different and there wasn't a whole lot in between. Small firms didn't (usually) view their time as a cost so efficiency was less important. They were primarily interested in attaining new business over executing existing business in less time. Big firms were interested in efficiency but had a very slow buying cycle. They also required integration with a plethora of legacy IT systems and sent us checklists of requirements for IT they were going to aquire.
I remember sitting in a meeting at a top 5 valley law firm. We demo'd a lawyer at this firm the LawPal platform. He said, "i love it, this would save us a heap of time, but we'll never be able to use it". He looked defeated. As someone that has worked in startups all my life, the idea of wanting to adopt something but being held back by red tape and institutional convention was foreign. My co-founder Yael remembers the perplexed look on my face.
4. Naivity - We wandered into a monster of a problem and in hindsight were pretty ill equipped to take it on. Crazy people are often the ones that solve crazy big problems but the risk is high and success is often elusive.
We are considering open sourcing the LawPal V3 platform. It would be nice for the codebase to be put to use. I think that big law will continue to make "we're evolving!" noises but little will change for a while. Clients will pull lawyers to use more efficient tools as they did with Blackberrys in the 90s. True legal automation is really much further away than Richard Suskind will lead you to believe but that's not a technological issue, is a cultural one. Small firms will use Clio and co but the bulk of solo IT adoption will be in generic products like Trello, dropbox, box and co. Small firm legal specific IT is not going to set the world on fire - i'll leave that for a separate post.
As a side note, I learnt a valuable personal lesson in this journey - i need to work in space that still inspires me at 2am on Friday morning when i'm debugging code. Law was perhaps a bit too foreign for me. I have recently joined the Product team at Teespring, a company that is revolutionizing a whole category of ecommerce, it's a lot of fun, fast moving and much less serious subject matter. The LawPal experience was an amazing one and i'm truly grateful to those who supported us and to my co-founders who i hope to work with again some day.