Finding Hybrids in the Legal Industry

The premise of the TV show Vampire Diaries is that there are vampires, werewolves, and witches living among us, only we don’t know it because they blend into our surroundings by adopting the human mannerisms, clothing, gadgets, and other material things considered “normal” for the century. I’ve viewed the show as a commentary on addiction (swapping drinking human blood for alcohol), and the psychological cycle of survival (one traumatic experience after another). If there isn’t a love triangle, there is fight for power. Themes as old as literature.

The subplot lines, especially the hybrid subplot, hold lessons for the “new thing” popping up in the legal sphere: the lawyer-entrepreneur. They run the gamut from law school to big law associates, and are taking action to use technology to improve aspects of the law, from enhancing big players like Westlaw and PACER, to better connecting consumers with lawyers, to automating some of their own processes no one else has considered.

Law Student-Entrepreneur

Dell. Yahoo! Google. Facebook. Besides being well-known brands and billion-dollar companies, they were also founded on college campuses. The story of a startup being founded in a dorm room seems common today, and according to Inc Magazine, more MBAs are starting their own companies. This trend is not immune to law school.

Joe Mornin is a 3L at at the University of California-Berkeley School of Law. He’s tackling the challenge of legal research in Westlaw with his Chrome extension aptly called Bestlaw. Like other entrepreneurs, he saw a problem, and a source of frustration, and opted to build a solution. Bestlaw adds features we’ve become accustomed to from using social media, Google Docs and the like.Jumping to footnotes, for example, or copying info with a click. Bestlaw also automatically generates a table of contents, which is useful. As a result, using Westlaw has become more efficient for law students and lawyers alike. As Tim Hwang says in his review, “It treats Westlaw as malleable, subject to alteration and improvement. There is an underlying philosophy that the specialist should control their tools, and not the other way around.”

Or, in the words Marlo from The Wire: “You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.”

It will be interesting to see what else law students do, on their own, to meld technology and aspects of the law, and what, if anything, carries over into their law practices or the firms they join.

Solo/Small Firm Lawyer-Entrepreneur

By default, a solo/small firm lawyer is an entrepreneur. Starting a business is an entrepreneurial endeavor, and the experience of starting and running a successful law practice does come in handy.

Take Terence McEnally, for example. He’s been a practicing lawyer in North Carolina for 20 years, mostly traffic law, and has carved out an immigration niche due to his fluency in Spanish. While his 20 years of practice give him the advantage of experience, it also gives him perspective.

His experience with uShip, a way to seamlessly connect “customers—from freight brokers to business shippers and consumers—with feedback-rated transportation service providers that engage in online fixed price, spot market and auction-based transactions,” got him thinking. He wondered how lawyers could better reach traffic violators, and with the help of a programmer friend, the app BernieSez was born. BernieSez has gained traction because people can use their smartphones to snap a picture of their ticket, upload it and respond to inquiries without having to go into an office. This is especially useful for out-of-towners, whether visiting, traveling on business or just passing through.

What consumer-to-lawyer applications will crop up in 2015? Will they be niche, like BernieSez, or attempt to take on general, large-scale connectors like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer?

Public Defender Lawyer-Entrepreneur

It’s easy to slip into the assumption that entrepreneurship is limited to the private sector. David Colarusso demonstrates that the public sector is not to be discounted, or ignored.

He is a public defender in Boston, and participated in the ABA Journal’s hackathon, where he built Due Processr. Like McEnally, he, too, thought there was a better way. He explains that he “wanted a set of mechanical tasks simple enough that they could be addressed in two days and frequent enough that their automation would actually deliver something broadly useful.” In essence, he wanted a set of legal calculators.

Just like McEnally, Colarusso didn’t have the technical programming knowledge or skill, but he did have the legal knowledge. He walked his two new collaborators through what they needed to know, the types of legal questions that might pop up, and they all got to work. In two days, they produced Due Processr, a set of calculators for indigency and sentencing.

Legal-focused hackathons are all the rage now. What will they produce in 2015?

Big Law Associate Lawyer-Entrepreneur

Most mentions of Big Law paint a grim picture, and the phrase “soul-crushing” is often used. Just as it is easy to slip into the assumption that little entrepreneurship happens in the public sector, so, too, is it easy to dismiss entrepreneurship in Big Law.

Enter DocketFish.

I have a more in-depth post coming on DocketFish, but suffice to say, whereas Bestlaw is a Chrome extension to enhance Westlaw, DocketFish connects with and enhances PACER. For example, it lets you cache documents so your firm isn’t repeatedly searching for and downloading the same document. You can “favorite” cases and documents and save them to your homepage for quick reference. In essence, it applies the functions of searching the Internet to PACER.

DocketFish is the brainchild of an associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP. Yes, a Big Law firm. An associate at a Big Law firm has built a better interface for PACER, all while still working at Cravath.

Where Do You See Them?

Lawyer-entrepreneur hybrids are everywhere, sometimes hiding in plain sight, sometimes making themselves known. As the new year starts, where do you see hybrids? Do you see yourself as one? Will hybrids become more prominent? Is this the future of legal work?

 

About Gwynne Monahan

Gwynne Monahan
Best known by her Twitter handle, @econwriter5. Generally speaking, she is a writer posting random, perhaps interesting, things.

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