Law Tech Camp was, in my mind, a large success. And congratulations to Monica Goyal, Sapna Mahboobani, Mitch Kowalski, Jordan Dulgin and everyone else for organizing, participating, and attending the event. I’m told that over 100 people attended and the sessions were educational and interesting.
Now…for those who missed it…I thought it would be worthwhile to mention some of the conversation and thoughts that come out of my panel. Myself, Monica Goyal and Terry Taoussanopoulos were presenting on “Legal Techs in a Brave New World“. I have Dynamic Legal Forms. Monica has MyLegalBriefCase. And Terry is working on a new online lawyer-referral venture.
Now, while Connie Crosby did a great job trying to tweet every little detail about our 45 presentation as possible, there’s a lot of context missing (Twitter only allows for so many characters). So I thought I would summarize some of my main points.
One of the first questions that Jordan asked was: What are the risks involved in doing online legal ventures?
Well, two of the risks involved in doing anything innovative when it comes to law and technology are: (1) the law society may regulate you and (2) you may get sued.
To respond to the first issue, I deliberately made sure (through diligent research) that what I was doing would not be offside with legal regulators. My website doesn’t offer legal advice; it offers legal information through a product (legal forms). Consumers of this product would buy it in the same way as they would purchase legal information in a book from Indigo (i.e. online). Now, it’s not always the case that the Law Society won’t come knocking. I personally know a lawyer who set up a website to sell services which, when asked by the Law Society if they were different from his law practice, he ultimately responded “no”. This meant that he now had to comply with law society rules since his law practice and his legal venture were one and the same. I’m sure this is also going to be the case when Terry Taoussanopoulos starts up his new online lawyer referral service (because lawyers can only pay lawyers referral fees according to law society rules throughout Canada).
Now, because the law society doesn’t regulate my website (which is set up through Dynamic Legal Forms Ltd., a corporation which is separate from myself and my law practice, DMC Law), my Law Pro insurance won’t cover what I’m doing. Law Pro is mandatory insurance for lawyers here in Ontario that helps protects them from being sued for errors and omissions that arise in the context of them providing legal services (i.e. legal advice to individuals based on their specific and unique needs and circumstances). It actually took me a month and a half to explain this to insurers; finally, one of them understood what I was talking about and I was able to get insurance! Phew!
A comment from the audience was: “You must do your market research before embarking on your journey”. I couldn’t agree more. And, to tell you the truth, the user “clicks” are a great indicator of how to gauge the marketplace. Find out what they’re after through their clicks. The clicks don’t lie.
Now, my philosophy has long been: “If you build it, they will not come…unless you dedicate significant time, money, and effort into marketing. And if you’re online, that means investing in Search Engine Optimization (or SEO for short)”. Now, I’ve become somewhat of an SEO guru (self-taught over a long period of time; tested many different things out before coming up with a solid strategy). And I can say this: building it is the easy part. Marketing it online is the hard part. There’s a lot of competition out there! And you’ll soon be paying ‘per click’ if you can’t figure out how to reach your target audience organically!
Dealing with Technical People
Lawyers aren’t naturally good at building websites or computer programming or stuff like that. They come from arts programs (there are only a few with engineering backgrounds). We take courses like history, political science, and philosophy. We know how to analyze, research, and write. But ask us to build a website or a computer program, and most of us will be lost.
When I first came up with the idea behind Dynamic Legal Forms, it took me about 8 months of working with my two technical friends from business school (Aashish and Manju) to take it from idea to reality. There were numerous delays. The code was very crappy. And I’ve had many coders tell me this ever since we did a huge overhaul last November (kind of like when a lawyer looks at another lawyer’s work and says “that’s no good; I can do better”).
So some of the lessons I learned from my experience was:
- Get a good coder from the start (you can check out elance.com or vworker.com if you don’t know where to start). Check out their work and feedback. Good coders are more expensive from the start, but will save you money in the long term.
- You may go through many different coders before you stick with one for a longer term. I’ve gone through about 5-10 coders.
- If you can afford a local coder, that’s better. If not, you can go to the websites mentioned above.
- You will make lots of mistakes when selecting and working with a coder; it’s cool. Learn from it and move on.
- The order of doing technical projects goes something like this (and lawyers could learn a thing or two about it): (1) understand business requirements, (2) develop process flow charts, (3) build wireframes, (5) build database and design pages, (6) insert design elements, (7) test, test, test!, and (8) launch and re-evaluate. If you don’t want to do these things yourself, pay someone else. Your time may be better spent on practicing law (this is very true in the short term).
- Nothing ever gets done perfect the first time. You’ll work on iteration 2, 3, and 4 and so on. There’s always plenty of time and money you can sink into special projects. Just get something out there. Don’t delay too long because the internet punishes those who do!
Barriers for Others
One of the best things about being a lawyer is that non-lawyers can’t do your job. Well, they can try, but they may get into some serious trouble (bad advice, no insurance, etc.). There are lots of barriers to entering into this profession (school, dues, competition, debts, etc.) or even allowing lawyers to do anything online (lack of financing, lack of technical expertise). So you see, what I’m saying is that: it’s difficult for non-lawyers to get involved in the legal services industry because of the high barriers to entry. But this may not always be the case. So it may be a good idea to take advantage of those barriers now.
Lawyers Sell Themselves
It dawned on me last year that lawyers do not sell services. They sell their personal relationship. Why do I say that? Well, anyone can get an agreement from a number of places. Why use lawyers? Because they want to talk with a trusted advisor who may point them in the right direction on a number of legal issues and who may ask the right questions. Forms alone won’t do that. Neither will doing a deal without an advisor. So we end up selling our personal time and relationship to clients. The forms and transactions are the end result. The relationship is what really counts. It is for this reason that online ventures must attempt a balancing act: how to separate the relationship from the lawyer (where only one-lawyer-to-one-client are served in this manner) from the legal form / transaction (where one-lawyer-to-many-clients can be served in this manner).
Terry Taoussanopoulos mentioned how other lawyers may be angel investors in his forthcoming venture. He mentioned the difficulty of getting financing from non-lawyers when you don’t have a tried, tested, and true model. I know how difficult it can be to get financing. My website has gone through many different phases and we’ve added or removed a lot of functionality in the hopes of making a penny. At the end of the day, our focused and persistent strategy finally allowed us to generate revenue. But it’s not until you’ve got that revenue (which may take a long time) before anyone is willing to take a chance on you.
I’ve already seen competitors who started when I started no longer exist today. They’re just not there. They died out. Maybe they got sued. Maybe they had financial problems. I don’t know. I’ve seen people give up trying to copy me and simply give away what they’ve built for free. Well, businesses cannot make profit, survive and thrive based on “free” (not a good business model in and of itself at the moment…). Ah well…
The bottom line is that YOU MAY FAIL at some point and in some capacity (large or small) BEFORE you finally figure out the right formula. There have been many times that I’ve wanted to give up and shut her down, but I’ve always remembered what I put into this beast and what I expect to get out of it. And it will take time before you see results in traffic or revenue. That’s just the nature of the internet. If you’re getting on now, you’re already too late. Things move so slowly online. Just be patient and keep at it. Remember: you need to put in your 10,000 hours before you can be an expert at your field and demand the kinds of revenues you want to have now.
Niche and focus are key. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. There are bigger players out there who are already in those spaces. You don’t have a chance. They’ve been establishing themselves for years and their resources are bigger than yours.
Making Money Online
Practicing law has generally provided me with a better income than doing anything online. But, if you keep at it, you can see exponential growth and no HOURLY LIMITS to the amount of residual income you can make online. I was amazed the very time someone bought a legal form from my website back in March 2010. It happened to be a lawyer. I thought to myself: “I’m just thankful, after spending 6 weeks building this damn thing, that someone would actually give me $47 plus tax for a form”. Don’t give up. Remember: 10,000 hours (approximately 5 years of work).
So there you have it…some final thoughts from Law Tech Camp. And I look forward to attending (and hopefully being asked to participate) in the next one…