Online platform for pro se litigants wins grand prize at Duke Law Tech Lab Demo Day
A Durham-based start-up offering tools and resources for pro se litigants took the grand prize at Duke Law Tech Lab’s third annual Demo Day, the culmination of a pre-accelerator program for promising early-stage legal technology companies.
Courtroom5 won $5,000 in the pitch competition on Sept. 20 for its online service that provides users with a case management platform, common legal document templates, instructions on procedure, access to a case law library, and an artificial intelligence-enabled navigator that directs users to appropriate resources for their state and type of case. Users pay a small fee to access the service for a month and can renew until they no longer need it.
Five start-ups that offer products or services focused on expanding access to legal information and services through technology-enabled solutions were accepted into the Demo Day pitch competition. All had completed the Tech Lab’s three-month program, which provides online education, coaching, and networking to early-stage legal tech companies and included seven startups that focused on the traditional legal market.
The other companies in the pitch competition were: San Antonio-based Easy Expunctions, which offers expedited expunction services for a reduced flat fee and placed second; Raleigh-based Civvis, which helps public and legal organizations communicate with the court system by digitizing forms and transmitting information; Dallas-based FastVisa, which helps employers improve the workflow for immigration processing; and Text A Lawyer, a Portland, Ore., company that facilitates instant chats with licensed attorneys.
Courtroom 5 co-founder Sonja Ebron said she and partner Debra Slone were inspired to help others navigate the legal system after having to represent themselves in civil court, and aim to make their tool “the LegalZoom of litigation” for the millions of people who represent themselves each year in civil cases.
“Courtroom5 exists for those who can’t afford a lawyer,” Ebron said. “It’s wonderful to get this kind of response to what we’re doing.”
Easy Expunctions, which won $2,500 as runner up, also was voted audience favorite, netting the startup an extra $1,000. Co-founder and CEO Yousef Kassim noted that having an arrest record can hinder a person from obtaining jobs, credit, and housing, and said he created the company after having to go through the expungement process himself.
“It was confusing and took a lot longer than it had to take,” he said. “But I was able to get closure on an issue that had been holding me back. I wanted to deliver this transformative experience to others.”
The five Demo Day presenters received intensive training and one-on-one mentoring as part of the Tech Lab’s focus on access to justice issues, said Associate Clinical Professor Jeff Ward JD/LLM ’09, the director of the Duke Center on Law & Technology facilitates the Tech Lab, and associate dean for technology and innovation.
“We think it’s so important that we intentionally intervene and make sure that legal technology is helping to expand access to legal services,” Ward said.
Ebron credited the program with putting her and Slone in touch with mentors who have been invaluable in helping them move their business plan forward. Those include contacts at LegalZoom who, she said, have been “very helpful and accessible.” LegalZoom, an early entrant in online legal services, began offering personal and business legal documents in 2001 and says it has reached 3.6 million customers worldwide.
“We’d love to reach their scale in the litigation arena over time,” Ebron said.
The pitch competition was held at the Bullpen, Duke’s hub for innovation and entrepreneurship in downtown Durham, and was judged by Jeff Pfeifer, chief product officer, North American Research Solutions at LexisNexis; Kenneth Heaps, chief information officer at Latham & Watkins; and Callie Schnog, managing counsel at Travelers. Earlier in the day, facilitators led related activities, including a design thinking session on creating markets for legal services for the underserved that included educators and students from other North Carolina law schools.
The Tech Lab is supported by gold-level sponsors Latham & Watkins, LexisNexis Legal & Professional, Travelers Insurance, and the Philip Edward McCarthy Memorial Funds for Law & Technology, along with N.C. community sponsors Smith Anderson and Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company.
Courtoom5, along with two other 2019 graduates of the Duke Law Tech Lab — Civvis and DueCourse, a San Francisco-based professional development platform for law firms — have been selected to participate in the fourth cohort of the LexisNexis Legal Tech Accelerator, a 10-week program that focuses on companies ready for market launch or in their market already. The two accelerator programs are part of a growing collaboration between Duke Law and LexisNexis to boost innovation in law and technology and create an ecosystem of support to help companies at all stages of development overcome challenges unique to the legal tech marketplace.