The legal industry has been notoriously resistant to change. This, after all, is a business that still requires lawyers to track their time in six-minute increments, as if they were churning out widgets on an assembly line. But a startup in San Francisco is creating an online marketplace for legal questions that could disrupt some of the industry’s most basic business practices.
LawPivot acts as a "Quora for legal questions." Businesses can use it to pose confidential questions to attorneys with expertise in a variety of areas. Right now the service is free to use, though CEO Jay Mandal tells Fast Company they plan to start charging next year, probably on a flat fee per question basis. Interestingly, however, the attorneys who answer the questions do so for free. And these aren’t just any old lawyers. Mandal, the former lead mergers and acquisitions attorney at Apple, said the 80 attorneys who’ve currently been approved to participate all either work at or have previous experience at the country’s top 100 law firms.
It’s clear why the system makes sense for businesses. Many smaller companies, especially startups, don’t have in-house attorneys. Even when they do, their attorneys don’t always have expertise in every area in which the company operates. In a world of where you can order up just about anything online, the process of identifying the right attorney for any particular question is still hopelessly analog, involving many hours tapping into networks and arranging interviews. And that’s even before you get hit with $600-an-hour fees for the answer to what sometimes is a pretty simple question.
LawPivot, whose founders include two other former Silicon Valley in addition to Mandal, takes the pain out of the process. Businesses can enter their questions—confidentially—and send them to attorneys with the appropriate expertise. Ooyala CFO Bryan Morris calls the tool "an incredible resource" for niche questions and second opinions. Although his online video startup has its own outside counsel, Morris recently turned to LawPivot for help with a question on British labor law. "I sent a note at the end of the day, and by first thing the following morning, I had a pretty comprehensive answer," he says, "without spending any time trying to find a reference for someone in the UK, getting their contact information, working out an engagement letter, or any of that rigmarole."
Why the system also makes sense for attorneys—who provide their expensive advice gratis—is less apparent unless you’re one of those lawyers. As time-consuming as it is for businesses to find the right attorneys, it’s equally burdensome for lawyers to find new clients. LawPivot, then, becomes a business development tool. Yusuf Safdari, a corporate and securities attorney at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman in Palo Alto, has been using the system since the spring. He told Fast Company that answering a question usually takes between five minutes (when he already knows the answer) to half an hour (if he has to do research). For his troubles, Safdari has found three new clients and several more prospects.
Still in its early stages, LawPivot is keeping things small for now, focusing on the technology industry and allowing businesses to join by invitation only. But the plan, according to Mandal, is to eventually expand to other areas, like health care, finance, and insurance. "Every other industry has used technology to bring the customer and the service provider together," Mandal said. "We think the legal industry has been ripe for technology to equalize the playing field between companies and lawyers and create a more efficient delivery of legal services."
[Image: Flickr user walknboston]