When Terence McEnally ventured into the ancient world of law, he never imagined he would become an entrepreneur of the Internet age. He had imagined the practice of law was based on reasoned thought and discussion, much like philosophy that he majored in as an undergraduate. As many newly minted law school graduates learn, the practice of law does not always meet the ideal.
McEnally has been practicing law comfortably for 20 years, having learned some hard lessons. Marketing, for example, is half the battle of getting new clients. That involves many avenues, including networking and establishing relationships in a community of people who can help, or hinder, your work. He became an expert in traffic law, and his fluency in Spanish helped carve out a niche of assisting the new generation of Latinos immigrating to the States, and North Carolina.
Even from the comfort of an established law practice, McEnally understood the fierce competition among lawyers for clients pulled over for speeding or driving without a license. In North Carolina, lawyers pay for lists of drivers cited for traffic infractions, and within days of being pulled over by police, those unlucky drivers have their mailboxes filled with solicitations from lawyers offering to fix the ticket, for a price.
Reasoned thought, he believed, suggested there was a better, more effective way of connecting ticketed drivers with lawyers. Reasoned thought soon gave way to a new venture, BernieSez.
An Entrepreneur’s Spirit
It was August 2012. He had been using an online shipping website called uShip. It works like this: If you have something you need to ship that’s too heavy for UPS, or too unwieldy for a box, you go on uShip and find shippers willing to bid on the chance to ship your product.
It made McEnally think: Why didn’t traffic attorneys have something like that?
Finding a cheap and quick way to reach clients where they are — their computers, smart phones and tablets — wouldn’t just be advantageous to consumers, but for lawyers as well.
McEnally knew from his early years of practice that it’s hard for a freshly-minted attorney to get started unless he’s been accepted into a firm or has capital. McEnally sees his app as an equalizer.
“What we have here is the makings of a turnkey law practice, because attorneys can at least, in theory, having gotten out of school yesterday and passed the bar, they don’t need an office, they don’t need brick and mortar, they don‘t need furniture. They need an iPad or a laptop,” he said.
But launching the venture hasn’t been a smooth road for McEnally, and along the way, he’s learned a lot about starting a new business and the complicated intersection between consumer needs and attorneys’ habit.
The Struggles of a Startup
Though he considered himself fairly tech savvy, McEnally soon realized that while he owned an iPad and an iPhone, his technical fluency was limited to email and surfing the Web. He didn’t have the coding knowledge to build BernieSez himself.
Frustrated over the poor proposals he had received after reaching out to the technology community on his own, McEnally approached an attorney friend who worked with entrepreneurs. A series of connections led him to his future partner: Jim Young.
McEnally was immediately impressed by Young. A geologist by training, Young runs what was originally an environmental consulting business called Terraine Inc. But in 2003, Young became adept with a piece of data collection software called Adesso. Eventually, his business purchased Adesso, and he began using it to create applications for paying clients like Duke Energy, American Electric Power and even the New Mexico Livestock Board.
The software is versatile and can be customized for the client. For instance, with the Livestock Board, Young used Adesso to craft a tool that could help the Board manage its cattle branding program.
Young also eventually used Adesso to run a portion of the BernieSez website.
And BernieSez isn’t his first foray into the app world. His app Envirochain is available on Google Play and in the iTunes App store. It’s used to help environmental workers maintain chain of custody. For example, if a geologist is collecting water samples out in the field, he or she must fill out a form with details about the sample before sending it to the lab. Typically, that form is just a piece of paper and is sent in the cooler along with the sample. Upon arrival, the lab technician has to take the form and put all that information into the computer. Envirochain cuts out the middle man by allowing the worker in the field to fill out the form using an iPhone. When the worker is done, he or she can just hit submit and the form scoots along the information superhighway to the lab.
With these successful tech ventures under his belt, Young has been phasing out the environmental aspects of his business, and since 2010 has focused almost exclusively on tech.
When McEnally told Young his idea, Young was interested in the potential challenge of creating BernieSez. Young helped McEnally understand the difficulties he faced, one of which was the fact that the product essentially had to be built twice: once for clients, and once for attorneys since both parties needed to be able to log in separately, register and get up and running quickly.
McEnally’s role was to explain to Young the human requirements of the product, while Young provided the technical answers. The process was grueling. Both men juggled a full load of other clients. McEnally’s wife Lisette was expecting a child, yet the two met often for caffeine-infused brainstorming sessions at Young’s office. Young would create mockups and the two would go over the details and figure out what worked and what didn’t. When they grew tired of being cooped up, they took their discussions to the streets of downtown Raleigh, walking and talking about the potential of the infant business. Sometimes, the creative muse visited at odd hours, and the two engaged in late-night e-mail battles over the direction of BernieSez.
A year and five months later, McEnally and Young launched BernieSez.
Using the app is simple. Attorneys who handle traffic cases register on the site. Clients log on, register and upload their tickets. Then the registered attorneys place bids to handle the clients’ cases.
Ray Beird of the Carolina Insurance Group was one of its first clients. He is McEnally’s insurance agent, and when he got a ticket driving too fast down a mountain in Rutherford County, McEnally suggested he give BernieSez a shot. He logged on, quickly got some bids and picked an attorney who successfully helped him with his case.
“I got my ticket reduced down to 9 over, and just paid the court costs and attorney fees and was done,” he said.
The resolution spared him points on his driving record and the risk of having his car insurance go up. Mostly though, using BernieSez saved him the hassle of combing through the snail-mail letters that attorneys send to solicit clients.
“I mean in the past, you get 50 letters in the mail from attorneys,” he said. “Normally, I don’t even use the attorney letters because I have some friends.”
His friend this time was BernieSez, and he described the process as smooth and easy.
For attorneys, BernieSez is a cheaper and more efficient way of getting clients. Cary attorney Wiley Nickel said he was sick of wasting money sending out mail to people who got traffic tickets.
“In Wake County, you have lawyers offering $235 a ticket to handle someone’s case and they’re making $20 or $30 bucks,” Nickel said. “And if you’re mailing everyone in the county… the math just didn’t work for me.”
Raleigh attorney Lawrence Kissling also uses BernieSez to get clients. He said it’s a great way of connecting consumers with attorneys. He said nobody should be worried that it’s all done on the Internet, especially considering how accustomed consumers have become to connectivity.
“People buy goods and service sight unseen on the Internet five or six times a day, and they don’t blink an eye,” he said. “There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be getting their legal services the same way.”
Needs of Clients v. Comfort Level of Attorneys
Now that the website is live, McEnally is learning some hard facts about reconciling the needs of clients with the comfort level of attorneys. He says attorneys can be slow to adopt new technologies, especially when there is a learning curve involved. Still, he thinks that lawyers will come along as they realize their business is moving online.
BernieSez is still in its infancy, and McEnally said it has room and time to grow. Right now, he’s focused on North Carolina, but he imagines the product could work well in other markets and hopes to eventually expand. Regardless of its reach, McEnally’s hope is for transformation rather than profit. He wants to even the playing field for clients and lawyers.
His philosophic sensibilities are still deeply rooted. McEnally believes customers will see the logic behind what he’s offering and jump on board. The lawyers won’t be far behind.