We are trying to move towards a system where the client can contact us and speak not to a specific lawyer but to anyone, in order to get their questions answered and understand how their work is progressing.
Canada-based Aluvion is a law firm that uses automated processes to reduce the cost of legal services for small businesses.
I have a background in technology and electrical engineering. I worked in Silicon Valley, and completed a master’s degree in electrical engineering at Stanford. I did those things before I went to law school, at the University of Toronto.
After I finished law school, I worked for a large firm in Toronto. When I was there, I was struck by the access to justice problems in the law. Having worked in technology, I understood what was possible; I understood the innovations in processes that technology offered. But there seemed to be such a big gap between that and how I saw things get done at the law firm.
It was 2008, and I saw companies like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer in the US taking off, which told me that there are people who are happy to obtain legal services online.
So, I created My Legal Briefcase, which offers a streamlined solution to the legal process for small businesses. The site automatically generates documents, based upon the responses that the user provides to certain questions.
But my experience with My Legal Briefcase has shown me that in Canada people are not ready to access legal services on line. They are willing to go online to look for general information to self-diagnose their legal issue, but they remain reluctant to access a legal service online.
What I realized was that the people who were visiting the My Legal Briefcase site had specific questions that they needed a lawyer for, and they were looking for help in getting connected to a lawyer.
So I started referring these people to other lawyers. But when I followed up after these referrals, I discovered that the conversion rate was very low. That is, very few people actually engaged the lawyer that I referred them to.
I wanted to understand why that was. After all, I am a lawyer, why can’t I help these people? I thought to turn the model around — instead of the client using the tools, I will use the tools in order to service the clients.
I was influenced by the book The Lean Start-Up, and especially the concept of the minimum viable product. Everything I build is an experiment — I build not just to build, but in reaction to the market and what the market is telling me it wants, and I shift and refocus on that basis.
This is how Aluvion was created. Alluvial is a maritime term — it refers to new land that is created from the build-up of river deposits on a shoreline. This symbolizes for us what we are doing with Aluvion — creating new land, new ground.
People seemed to like what we were offering, and we had a lot of customers. What I realized is that most of the people who were using the service were small business owners. So, focusing on small businesses, we took a good look at everything we did and asked what could be automated even further — to bring the costs down and to bring the time to do the work down.
This is going well and we are looking at expanding the product line. In essence, it is legal services with a lot of automation.
For our clients, we are a law firm. We serve corporate commercial needs. But we do it at a very cost effective rate. The reason we can do that is because of our internal use of automatic processes. As a result, certain services, like incorporation, we can do at approximately half the price of a traditional law or accountancy firm.
Taking incorporation as one example, the process works like this:
– We do a client intake as any firm would do,
– We enter the client’s information into a web form,
– Our system takes that information and generates the needed documents, like Articles of Incorporation and other organizing documents,
– The documents are uploaded into an electronic portal, and
– In the electronic portal, the client can review the documents and can sign them electronically.
We can use different types of people at different touch points in the process. For example, the person who does the intake can be a junior lawyer or a paralegal. At the other touch points, the person does not need to be a lawyer, it only needs to be someone who is trained on the system.
We manage each project in a collaborative way, and we are trying to move towards a system where the client can contact us and speak not to a specific lawyer but to anyone, in order to get their questions answered and understand how their work is progressing. It doesn’t always make sense for it to be a lawyer who is in contact with the client, especially if it’s about simple stuff. But it is tough to move to this as people generally think of a lawyer when they seek legal services, not of a team of people. In the end, we try to meet the client’s needs and expectations.
I incorporated My Legal Briefcase with the intention of receiving outside investment. But it turned out that that model was not the right one for the Canadian market at that time. Of course, now with Aluvion’s model we cannot, under the current rules in Canada, obtain outside funding. This limits us in significant ways. It means that we have to be entirely self-funding. We could grow much faster if we had access to external funding.
To me, innovation is technology. Of course you can have innovation without technology — Conduit and Cognition are examples of that. But for me, who has a background in technology, innovation is technology, and technology is capital intensive. The common model for technology innovation companies is equity financing. There are people, in the US and in other places, who are creating innovations in legal services using equity financing — they are thumbing their noses at the regulators — they are claiming a grey space between what is and is not allowed. But they have to — they do not a have choice because of the regulations. So, yes, the rules today do inhibit the development of technology for use in legal services.
Here is the problem — today when many people talk about increasing access to justice, very frequently they talk about technology solutions.
In the legal community, we have a dialog about the access to justice problem. We also have a dialog about how technology offers at least a partial solution. But we don’t take the dialog further to ask just how a particular solution can actually be put in place, and especially how it can be put in place without external financing.
I think that Canada can learn a lot from the Australian and UK experiences. The UK is a hotbed of innovation, and I look there to get some of my own ideas.
In the UK, changes were imposed upon the legal profession from the public. I am hopeful, notably with the CBA Futures Report (for which I sat on the Business Structures and Innovation committee), that the legal profession in Canada can get ahead of the game and have some control over the process rather then it being imposed upon us.
There has been pushback in Canada to the CBA Futures Report. Perhaps the most significant pushback has been from the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association. They have clearly announced their opposition to nonlawyer ownership.
But I don’t think it is possible to stop it. Even if the rules do not allow for it, as in the United States, people will look for ways around it — just look at LegalZoom.
I think that we, as a profession, could be doing much more in terms of innovating and improving the accessibility and affordability of legal services.
To download a pdf of this and the other stories, please click below.