Regardless of your position in the non-lawyers vs. legal professionals semantics debate, one thing is for sure: they are increasingly contributing to the future of the legal industry. In fact, nearly 60% of current legaltech founders do not have a JD. Instead, they come from all kinds of backgrounds: immigrants looking to solve their own legal challenges, scientists turned IP and eDiscovery techies, tech veterans passionate about access to justice issues, and MBAs who see legal as a business opportunity.
Indeed, some of the more well-known legaltech companies like Relativity, Logikcull, Heureka, and new startups like Page Vault, Tali, and SimpleCitizen, were founded by non-lawyer entrepreneurs, and there’s no doubt they’re creating incredible value.
In an industry driven by billable hours and risk minimization, it’s unsurprising that innovation is originating elsewhere, and we must foster a culture of inclusion to actually move the needle on access to justice. Particularly, intersectionality is key to creating a user-friendly product (especially for consumers), minimizing design bias, and developing powerful network effects both within and outside of law.
Room for Legal Professionals
While lawyers provide essential value as subject matter experts, there is room for others to introduce new ways that expertise might be applied. Combining those legal and entrepreneurial viewpoints with those of the end user is the best way to maximize a product’s impact. “Being a ‘non-lawyer’ has actually been one of the keys to our success,” explains Sam Stoddard, Co-founder of SimpleCitizen. “Other people and companies have tried to create a tool to streamline immigration. Most of these companies were started by lawyers or immigration officers. They were thinking about the problem from the perspective of service providers, not through the eyes of the end user. They didn’t put enough thought around the individuals and families trying to get legal immigrant status in the U.S. Actually living this experience as founders helped us gain true empathy for the customers we help every day. We’re building a tool that immigrants need, not lawyers.”
Maneesha Mukhi, the Founder of ImmiGo, echoes Stoddard’s experience. Mukhi came to the U.S. as an international student almost 20 years ago. It took nearly 10 years, three green card applications, and a lot of anxiety to get her green card. Now, she runs an online immigration service, and her role as a consumer has significantly impacted her business. “I have been in the immigrant’s shoes, but also been the provider that works with attorneys on immigrants’ petitions,” she says. “With that said, I care just as much about the attorney experience as I do about the immigrant experience on the platform.”
The value of incorporating non-legal viewpoints extends to B2B legaltech as well. Adam Meisel, Creative Director at Paladin, explains that “the benefits of hiring a professional designer is they bring design methodology, best practices, experience, and outside perspective.
“A product designer’s role is being able to work with domain experts (lawyers, paralegals, subject matter experts, etc.) to understand their problems, facilitate constructive problem solving exercises with them, and then translate those ideas into solutions,” Meisel says. “Those skills don’t require a law degree, and frankly, being steeped in that world for so long will make it more difficult to come up with novel solutions.”
Non-legal founders can also help reduce design bias by considering how users might come to find and interact with the tools, conveying complex processes in simpler terms (e.g., no legal jargon!), and creating a more intuitive user experience.
Lastly, an interdisciplinary approach allows startups to think about long-term use cases and adaptability, ultimately expanding the product’s market and usefulness. For example, at Paladin, we’re asked all the time how our pro bono platform can be leveraged for other industries’ volunteer work. The more, various user types we have on the platform, the more data we have on behavior and needs, which can be used to improve the product for everyone.
Gabriela Cubeiro, the Co-Founder of CASEpeer, points out that legaltech tools can also be the jumping-off point for larger, more holistic solutions within firms. Cubeiro says she “wanted CASEpeer to be a comprehensive case management solution, focused on optimizing every stage, since efficient case management tools are necessary to every facet of running a successful law firm.
“I’m excited by the holistic business transformation the right practice management software can have,” Cubeiro exclaims.
How to Build a Well-Rounded Legal Team
Of course, we don’t want to be building tools without lawyers, but we do want to make sure we’re including a diversity of viewpoints to make the technology as impactful as possible. Here are some tips on how to build a well-rounded legaltech team:
- As an Employer, Lead With Values — “Believe in and sell prospective hires on your mission and values. It’s easy to dismiss as a ‘millennial’ thing, but that’s short-sighted. Often, why a legaltech company is building what they’re building seems to get lost. Maybe the founders take it for granted. Maybe their branding is so bad it doesn’t communicate it. Your brand isn’t just competing against all of legaltech, it’s competing with every company trying to hire good people. If your brand can communicate your mission and values, you’ll have a much easier time attracting talent.” — Adam Meisel
- As an Entrepreneur, Look for Values — “If you seek work with meaning, purpose and heart, don’t be quick to dismiss legaltech. There are incredible start-ups in this space, opening up the system to those that need legal assistance the most. You just have to find the story that resonates with you.” — Maneesha Mukhi
- Focus on a Specific Problem — “If you’ve identified a problem you can solve better than anyone else, do it! Don’t let anyone say you need to be a lawyer to build or sell meaningful solutions to law firms. It’s not true, and at the end of the day your product will speak for itself.” — Gabriela Cubeiro
- Seek out Collaboration — “There are incredible opportunities to get involved and bring fresh perspectives as entrepreneurs, engineers, product managers, and designers to the legal space. In 2019-‘20, I believe we will see unbelievable leaps and bounds in legaltech as more forward thinking legal professionals team up with smart, ‘non-lawyer’ innovators. The future is bright.” — Sam Stoddard
At a time when legaltech is getting more attention and there’s greater opportunity to borrow people and ideas from across industries, that collaboration will be an essential part of scaling legaltech solutions.