Shaun: Welcome to the Automating Business Podcast, where we help small and medium businesses automate and streamline what they do every day. This is your host, Shaun Hughston. Have you ever wondered why lawyers are so expensive and why there’s so much paperwork involved? In this episode we meet Alex Solo from Sprint Law, who’s on a mission to automate, demystify and simplify basic legal services for small business and startups. We’ll learn about the tech he uses to do that and the impact [00:00:30] he’s starting to make in his industry. Alex Solo and Tomoyuki Hachigo are big firm corporate lawyers turned startup founders. It was when they noticed the massive waste in the legal system and a distinct lack of technology that they decided to turn things in another direction.
In their cool inner city office there’s a distinct lack of law firm pomp and no admin staff or paralegals to speak of. They can take more time speaking [00:01:00] to their clients and getting things done, rather than spending hours on paperwork. There’s still a long way to go though, for the system to catch up with these types of forward thinkers, with legal regulations still wedded to a paper and pencil system. Ale Solo from Sprint Law, thank you very much for joining the Automated Business Podcast.
Alex: No worries.
Shaun: You can be reached @sprintlaw on Twitter, is that right?
Alex: That’s right, yeah.
Shaun: We’ll put other details for you guys in the show notes as well.
Alex: Sounds good.
Shaun: [00:01:30] Let’s get started on the most important question, which is, are you a lawyer or a musician first?
Alex: That’s a good question, I think these days my identity is firmly a lawyer. I definitely grew up playing music and that was a big part of I guess my youth and my identity, but I think at some point when you finish your uni degree and start your career you’ve got to make a call, what’s it going to be, so I think at this point I would say I’m a lawyer and a musician second.
Shaun: [00:02:00] Okay.
Shaun: There was a moment there where it could have been something different?
Alex: Yeah, I don’t know when … yeah, I don’t know when I made the choice but there was a moment I suppose, yeah, even during university days, I pretty seriously played in a few bands and things like that and thought about the career as a musician, but there’s a number of reasons why I decided not to do that. One of them partially being that in Australia I don’t think being a musician is a legitimate career, unless you’re one of the biggest bands in Australia. I was being … yeah, I guess I was interested in [00:02:30] I guess using the other side of my brain, the more analytical side so …
Shaun: Okay, that’s fair enough. You describe yourselves as lawyers for business powered by tech, so what does that mean to you?
Alex: Of course, so I think, yeah, what’s really a bit different about our firm is that we’re trying to be a technology powered law firm and by that we mean that we’re lawyers but we don’t stick our heads in the mud and ignore technology. We [00:03:00] operate the latest legal technology and non-legal technology to enable us to provide faster and more efficient legal services, and more user friendly legal services.
Alex: Yeah, so that’s how I would explain that phrase.
Shaun: Okay, and how do you think more traditional lawyers or maybe older lawyers view your approach? Do you have people that have given you feedback?
Alex: Yeah, I think as you’d expect maybe there is a little bit of a generation gap in the law and there’s a lot of very experienced I guess older [00:03:30] solicitors, but also a lot of young ones that have chosen the legal profession because they thought it was the one where they could stick their head in the mud and ignore technology, so we definitely get some skepticism in terms of like, “Well, look a human is always going to be better than a computer and whatever you’re doing must be inferior in some way.” There have been a lot of misconceptions I think about the way that people use technology, thinking that somehow it’s going to be a complete solution for a human being, which at this point in time [00:04:00] particularly in the law I don’t think is the case. We do get a little bit of yeah, I guess, negative feedback sometimes or skepticism about what we’re doing, but I think there’s a growing understanding in the legal industry that technology is really going to play an important role in the future of how work’s done.
I’d say on the whole, even traditional solicitors are interested in what we’re doing and open to hearing about how we’re doing things differently. I think since we’ve launched I’ve been a little bit surprised in how positive the feedback’s been, and really people not saying, “ [00:04:30] We think that what you’re doing is bad,” but really, “What is it and how can I apply that to what I do as well?”
Shaun: Okay, that’s great to hear, well, and at the moment you’re doing purely commercial law, is that correct?
Alex: Yeah, so we do purely commercial, what we call [front-end 00:04:46], so transactional work, we don’t do any I guess dispute stuff or things involving the courts, really just focusing on contract drafting, advice, IP registration and protection, just the whole suite [00:05:00] of services that small businesses and startups would commonly need, and they’re also like primary customers.
Shaun: Okay, so is that because you think those areas requiring more litigation or more face time, more court time, wouldn’t suit this approach or it’s just not something you’re doing at the moment?
Alex: A bit of both, I think our business’s starting point was really to solve this problem that there’s a huge market of underserved startups and small businesses who just don’t want to go see a lawyer because [00:05:30] it’s a headache and it’s too expensive. We were really solving that problem and I think the first step in doing that for us was really solving the contract drafting, transactional advice, part of the problem. We haven’t tackled the dispute problem because firstly it’s something that’s less common in the small business world, they don’t tend to get into that many disputes that end up needing legal advice or at least litigation- [00:06:00] type legal advice. Then secondly what you just said, which is we’re not sure how to tackle the problem of the court system, it’s very difficult to introduce innovative ways of doing things when you have to operate within reams and reams of court processes, and you have to buy what the court will allow you to do.
I started out my legal career actually working in litigation technology or legal technology, as did my cofounder, [00:06:30] and there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in that space particularly in the US with people looking at different ways to make litigation more efficient. We just found the Australian court system … and things may have changed in the last couple of years, but even with all the technology stuff available, judges and barristers are still insisting on things being done in paper and there are still people pushing trolleys to court for no reason other than, “Uh, we just think it’s better process,” or something. Yeah, I think down the line we want [00:07:00] to explore litigation but right we’re taking the low hanging fruit and focusing on the transactional legal services.
Shaun: Look, it’s what I find with across a range of institutions as you know, and it’s a common issue that we see that things are done because … because, it’s a status quo.
Alex: Yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely.
Shaun: When you start questioning people whether it’s on a macro level within a business, “Why are you doing this this way?” It’s not a criticism, it’s just an exploratory question, “Why are you doing this this way?” [00:07:30] The answer is often, “Because that’s how it’s done, that’s how we’ve always done it,” whether it’s justifying a job or it’s something that they’re comfortable with, it’s the enemy of automation. Certainly there are some things that may always be done by paper, I don’t think E-cards are taking over birthday cards for example. There’s definitely stuff that you’ve got to think in the legal system, which is [00:08:00] one of the busiest parts of public service, deals with billions of dollars of transactions, yeah, and has some of the most highly paid people both in the legal profession and in the judiciary of any of the government service, that you think, well, why isn’t this better?
Alex: Yeah, definitely.
Shaun: In a lot of cases it’s costing either the tax payer or the end user of the legal system a lot of money.
Alex: Yeah, I could not agree more with what you just said, yeah.
Shaun: Yeah, yes, I have to disclose of course for my listeners [00:08:30] that I am a client of yours, and I feel like this approach, for me anyways, has actually improved the client interaction. Have you received this feedback from people?
Alex: We have, and yeah that’s … well, thank you for saying that, that’s good to hear, I think what we try to do, which is a little bit different to other new law, as they’re being called now, providers, was focus on customer experience or user experience, and really just think about, let’s rip apart the [00:09:00] existing model and start with what does the user want? That’s a very I guess tech company way of thinking, like the lane startup or the agile project management way of building a project or a business. We thought, all right, let’s start with the user, what do they want, and one of the first thing you find out is that when people want to consume legal services they want to speak to a person. The idea that even now that the first thing you would do is remove the human interface and put an app or a software [00:09:30] product at the front, particularly for more complicated legal services, I think it may not be a good idea.
We found that when we put the technology in the background and the lawyers are the ones operating it, so that the customer still gets the great customer experience but the efficiency is generated in the backend, that that model really works and that’s where the technology should sit. Yeah, so we have gotten a lot of feedback that it was actually, yeah, people [00:10:00] are saying, “This is the best experience I’ve had, you guys are so responsive” and et cetera, and that’s really because that’s the core of our business, is being user friendly.
Shaun: Yeah, removing barriers, right?
Alex: Exactly, yeah.
Shaun: You and your cofounder, do you have secretaries, do you have paralegals?
Alex: None of that stuff, no. Again, when you tear apart the law firm and recreate it for the user, everything’s on the table, and, yes, things like secretaries, we haven’t needed them yet. We use technology [00:10:30] to book in all of our phone calls and calendar meetings, and yeah, paralegals, a lot of the routine tasks that paralegals would do, photocopying and document preparation and things like that, don’t exist in our business so, yeah.
Shaun: Sure, okay, that’s awesome. You don’t have to tell us all of your secrets, but tell us what your tech stack looks like.
Alex: For sure.
Shaun: What are you using to do this automation?
Alex: We took inspiration I guess from software companies and [00:11:00] I guess SAS companies in designing our tech suite, again thinking about the user friendliness and how do other big companies like Uber or whatever do things, or even the service provider companies like the big internet companies and things like that. What we did was split the lawyers role into I guess operations, sales and legal, and then looked at different tools that would best support that. For our sales [00:11:30] function we use Pipedrive, and that’s just been a really great implementation in terms of allowing us to manage a large volume of potential customers at once. That’s been really great. We use Trello internally for sharing ideas and strategies and things like that. We use a shared mailbox system for liaising with potential clients, and now we’re [00:12:00] rolling it out for actual clients, the lawyers will use the shared mailbox as well.
We use project management tools for our lawyers, cloud based project management tools, for our lawyers to manage legal projects. Then, yeah, I guess record time, we don’t record time in the traditional way of billable hours but we do it more for internal metrics. That’s all done from our project management system. Cloud based storage, we use Box, which we like particularly because they got pretty high security levels but also …
Shaun: Yeah, so you have [00:12:30] to, yeah?
Alex: Yeah, yeah, and yeah, and I think that’s it, and we use [Zapya 00:12:32] as well, which we’ve chatted about before, which has been really great in connecting all these different systems and automating a lot of things. Then Slack, the internal comms, so there’s I guess most of our tech swing, yeah.
Shaun: Yeah, so it sounds like you’re using a lot of products that are relatively new. I’m familiar with all the products that you talked about, and some of them are only a couple of years or a few years into the market, so hopefully they’ve got some maturity to go [00:13:00] as well. I find, and it sounds like you have as well, that you’ve looked at the products that you want but you’ve selected the ones that are probably integratable as well, right?
Alex: Definitely, I think putting together that tech stack was first of all a very iterative process of trying different things and then testing them with customers, things breaking down and looking for different solutions. I think we ran into a trap early on of putting [00:13:30] the wrong foot forward and starting with the tech stack instead of the customer, and you just procure too many products that you don’t need. There was definitely a process of several months of just getting rid of unnecessary tools that we didn’t need. Yeah, I think it was, yeah, as you say, just finding tools that supported the way we did things. I actually just remembered, we also use Confluence, which has been incredible for internal knowledge management, and I just think a really great [00:14:00] tool for lawyers to share knowledge in the same way that developers share processes and things like that, so it’s been cool.
Shaun: Yeah, that’s all right, it’s interesting that you talk about maybe oversubscribing a little bit at first, because it is a common pitfall for startups, and when I go into a business and help people strategize what they’re doing, it’s one of the common things that I see, their subscriptions bill is enormous every month because it does add up over time particularly as you get more users, if it’s user [00:14:30] based licenses. It gets expensive and you start looking at, “Okay, some of these things are actually redundant because they’re cost purposed.” It’s good to see that you’ve iterated and maybe paired that down a little bit. Sometimes you need to experiment, you don’t know what you don’t know. It sounds like you’re on the right path.
Talking about problems, we were talking a little bit before about some of the more archaic legal products, for international listeners, in Australia we’ve got a fairly rigid system [00:15:00] in place like the rest of the world about how lawyers manage money, particularly clients’ money, you’ve got trust management systems and so on. There’s really only a few legal apps that you can use for that kind of thing, right? What kind of challenges have you faced there?
Alex: Oh, don’t get me started on the trust accounting. That, the trust accounting problem has been a … it’s like a big process problem in our business. It’s very difficult to build a new type of [00:15:30] system and comply with the regulations. We had to redesign our model a lot and our processes, including the [inaudible 00:15:38] tools around trust accounting rules in Australia. It’s not even because the concept of trust accounting is problematic, it’s more just because the regulation is written with I guess paper in mind. It’s very hard to translate that to new ways of doing things. Really [00:16:00] we had to start with trust accounting and pick our tech stack around it. Trust accounting, there’s issues with if you want to charge people money …
Essentially what trust accounting is, is … for those that don’t know, is that it’s a requirement that you have hold money in trust if you want to collect money for legal services in advance, and it can’t be released until the work is complete and the client has signed off on it and given you authorization [00:16:30] to release it. One of the issues for example is if you want to use like Stripe or a payment platform, will they charge transaction fees? You can’t charge a transaction fee in advance, so it’s very difficult to collect money upfront, so we had to find a payment provider that allowed us to split the transaction fee in the way that we collect money, which was a huge issue where you’re trying to use payment providers that integrate with zero and invoicing systems and et cetera, et cetera.
Yeah, there’s also record keeping requirements [00:17:00] and various other things, so it’s interesting, yeah, just I guess one piece of regulation can really affect your entire business system, we found. We probably would have a slightly different tech stuff if not for trust accounting. Yeah, it’s difficult again like a lot of softwares are built for the legal industry, and because of that I guess it’s a small industry and they’re not international, the softwares are not very good and [00:17:30] they don’t integrate with anything. If they’re the only software option available to comply with the regulation then trying to slot them into a suite that uses non-legal tools is very challenging.
Shaun: It can be, and I see this time and time again particularly in professional industries, no matter what the country. Sometimes it is a matter of just accepting it and working around it or the only other option is to create something new, which is possible, but also a headache sometimes and not necessarily your core [00:18:00] business.
Shaun: Okay, that’s interesting, so what does the future hold for Sprint Law, what’s the direction that you’re heading in?
Alex: Sure, so I think we’re going really fast at the moment. It’s a pretty exciting time, so yeah, we’ve been around I guess almost a year now. It started out with just the two of us and we’ve started to hire lawyers and build our team. I think in the short term we’re just going to build out our team and try and I guess [00:18:30] expand maybe a little bit around Australia, open up some different offices. We’re trying to be a mainly online firm but we do have a co-working space in Sydney where people can come work if they want to, and we like the idea of having that available for other lawyers. That said, some of our lawyers work remotely. I think the next step in terms of growing is just going to be, yeah, increasing our client base and hiring more lawyers to work for us and expanding our team.
In the longer term [00:19:00] we want to really look at different ways we can use technology to solve other legal problems. We do think that there are lots of opportunities that don’t involve the human interface I was talking about, where you can really have software products that solve clients’ legal problems. Very simple legal services like getting an NDMA or something like that, there’s no reason you need a lawyer for that. There’s already a bunch of tools that do things like that, but we’re looking at those simple problems [00:19:30] that we can solve using software products. We’re exploring, yeah, different document automation tools and things like that, and different ways that we can provide I guess technology based legal services to that market but we’re not really ready to spend big dollars on [legals 00:19:47], but maybe down the line and we can connect with them.
I think we’re going to be looking at building different software products, and the long term vision is to really be an all in one [00:20:00] solution for those small businesses and startups who are looking for … who have some sort of legal problem and don’t have a big budget, and we want to provide them with a range of different solutions so that they don’t have to worry anymore and their headache’s solved. That’s the vision for the company.
Shaun: Yeah, it sounds like exciting times.
Shaun: The last question for you is, what’s the one app that you can’t live without right now?
Alex: In the business?
Shaun: In the business, in your personal life.
Alex: That’s a great question, there’s so many.
Shaun: This is a G-rated show.
Shaun: Keep it clean.
Alex: Okay, definitely will. I’d [00:20:30] have to say it’s Trello, it’s Trello, I’m just such a huge fan of Trello. We started our business just on Trello. I have my personal life in Trello as well, just in terms of the lists and things like that. I just love it for ID generation, to-do list, dropping notes and files and everything. [00:21:00] I think whether or not you like Trello may be a personal question but I’m a very visual thinker and I just love mapping out my thoughts on different Trello boards, so yeah, Trello is the one, yeah.
Shaun: Good to hear. We’ve got an interview coming up with the founder of Trello in a few months so, yeah, that should be good.
Alex: Amazing, I will definitely be listening to that, yeah.
Shaun: Well Alex Solo, thanks so much for your time.
Alex: No worries, great to chat.
Shaun: Thank you. That’s it for today’s show, don’t forget to check out the show notes for more details about Sprint Law, and [00:21:30] a special walk through video on how to use some of the tech they use in their startup in your own business. Until next time, this has been Shaun Hughston.