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Where Are They Now: JustLegal (Congo)

LEGAL CONSULTATION ON THE GO

 

August 14, 2017

 

AUSTIN, TEXAS – Despite rising tuition costs, some enterprising students begin recouping the price of their education before diplomas are even issued.  Take for example, the quartet that founded JustLegal, the online marketplace for legal advice.  The business began as a school project for Willy Ogorzaly (Marketing ex’14) and Tyler Cox (Marketing ex’14) in a University of Colorado Boulder entrepreneurial class in the spring semester of 2013.  By the time that Joe Burchard (IntRel ex’14) and Tyler VanNurden (CompSci ’15) rounded out the founding foursome, the team was working overtime to get the business off of the ground while also balancing their academic coursework.  And thus far, those efforts have been rewarded with multiple rounds of seed capital from angel investors, numerous awards from startup competitions, and a viable enterprise that has already expanded into new markets.

JustLegal is both a legal tech company and a marketplace, whose mission is to bring the attorney-client relationship online through video-chat and real-time scheduling services.  This makes legal advice more accessible and more affordable, especially for the highly mobile millennial generation.  Users of the site are typically clients in need of legal representation, particularly in the areas of criminal defense, immigration, business and family law.  Clients may browse the online database of attorneys, reviewing their experience, expertise, education and hourly rates.  Filters allow users to quickly compare competing attorneys in their areas.  Once clients select an attorney, they may book an appointment and connect via video-chat or meet in person.

The site is free-of-charge to clients, though they will have to pay market rates to the attorneys for any subsequent services received.  Since attorneys set their own rates, JustLegal itself does not practice price regulation.  Instead, the company earns its revenue from monthly subscription fees paid by their attorney members as well as a variable fee for every appointment scheduled.  Fees vary based on both location and field of practice.  For example, attorneys specializing in fields that tend to have higher case values – such as personal injury – will pay more than fields where these values tend to be lower – such as divorce.  In exchange for these fees, attorney members get access to the platform of clients, providing time and cost efficiencies.  The company estimates that it reduces the client acquisition cost for DUI recipients from the industry average of $1,000 to less than $500.  JustLegal only accepts attorneys who have met certain criteria within each field of law, including holding active licenses and having no history of malpractice or disbarring.

Given the transactional nature of the relationship exchange, many clients only use the platform once.  So the lifeblood of the business centers on the continuous attraction of new clients.  Marketing involves everything from website content and social media to direct mail and handouts left at co-working spaces.  However, the preferred method of marketing to clients is search engine optimization (“SEO”), or appearing in search results when people search for an attorney.  The company believes that SEO success cannot solely be achieved through paying search engines such as Google, so the team focuses on publishing current and relevant content to its website.  SEO is now the company’s primary source of client traffic, with +30% growth month-over-month throughout the past year.  The company also utilizes more traditional outbound sales routes such as handwritten letters, phone calls and emails.

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JustLegal is the brainchild of Ogorzaly.  A native Texan, he was enticed to CU-Boulder by the snow and mountains.  Within the walls of Koelbel Hall, he found students applying scholarly logic to topics that they were passionate about.  Academia was no longer just about studying for exams and writing term papers, it was a vehicle through which you could achieve your business goals.  It was as a junior marketing major in the Leeds School that his revelation came during a business law class, when he wondered to himself what a tort was.

“It was a simple question straight out of a textbook,” he recalled, “but I was blown away at the lack of information on legal concepts.  When I Googled the definition, it read, ‘A tort is a tortious act committed by a tortfeasor.’”

In search of a better answer to the question, he typed ‘video chat with a lawyer’ into Google, but was once again surprised when he didn’t find a website offering this. He thought that if this service was available, the average consumer would have greater access to legal services.

Now armed with a problem to solve, he needed a platform in which to test it.  That opportunity came in the spring of 2013, in the form of assistant professor Eva Yao’s entrepreneurial environment undergraduate course.  Students were required to organize into small groups to brainstorm startup ideas, devise feasibility analyses, and pitch their ideas to the class.  Ogorzaly quickly recruited others to join him in pursuit of his idea.  Of the five classmates in the original group, Ogorzaly and Cox would go on to see the idea through to business formation.

Years later, Yao recalled that the team stood out despite being among a particularly strong crop of teams that semester.  On the first day of class, she displayed pictures of famous entrepreneurs on the overhead projector, and queried the class, somewhat rhetorically, on who intended to be as successful as these leaders one day.  Only two students raised their hands, Cox and Ogorzaly.

“It was very obvious that they wanted to do something, their own thing, to make a mark on this world,” Yao said.  “Those two work well together, they match each other with balance and temperament.”

Startups pursue a variety of means with which to prove their concepts and achieve validation.  In software development, alpha testing is an improvement process in which a company’s internal developers test their applications over and over until it has a workable product.  Once this is complete, the process may progress to a beta phase in which external users are allowed to simulate actual usage.  This is a useful way to evaluate real-world practicality and receive feedback before launching the end-product.  While JustLegal did use beta testing, it hastened the process by simultaneously entering into competitions to provide additional feedback.

“We took a weird path,” mused Ogorzaly.  “Before we even got to Lean validation, we went the competition route.  We lost many of them, but every competition was making us a better company because we were getting advice from mentors and judges along the way.”

Yao believes that the competition circuit is a good way to collect input beyond that being given by a professor in a classroom setting.  Even more so nowadays with accelerators, a form of boot camp for startups, gaining popularity.  Furthermore, competitions generate local publicity and news coverage that naturally exposes startups to networks that may include mentors and angel investors, while chances to win prize money prove valuable to cash-strapped entrepreneurs.

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Though the company’s casual office culture is typical of other startups – complete with a ping-pong table and stand-up desks – the company’s vision is very structured.  Led by the cerebral Ogorzaly, JustLegal implements formulaic startup strategies including the minimum viable product approach and the Lean Startup methodology.  This latter strategy is a nod to Yao’s class, as it is a philosophy taught by Leeds’ entrepreneurship instructors.  The premise is continuous process improvement through investigation and iteration, with constant feedback from customers, mentors and peers.  Testing assumptions in the marketplace allows a startup to frequently ask and answer questions in order to maximize its chances for success.  For JustLegal, this meant coding and recoding a scheduling widget until it was user-friendly enough to allow clients to book appointments with attorneys.  In fact, within the first 60 hours of testing the scheduling technology, the company booked its first two clients through the widget, before doing any marketing.

If the Lean Startup method is executed properly, by the time that the product or service is distributed widely, it already has a base of interested stakeholders, a battle-tested idea and hopefully validation.  If negative feedback is received, the startup may decide to pivot and change its course.  In its early stages, JustLegal encountered many such pivot points.  For example, they were told by Yao and others that their initial scope of catering to doctors, lawyers and other professionals was too broad.  Deciding to focus exclusively on lawyers was difficult because the legal industry was notoriously slow to adopt technology.

“It felt like we were throwing away half of our work and limiting future revenue potential,” said Burchard.  “But narrowing our scope allowed us to focus on and master one area of expertise.”

Ogorzaly (center) and Cox rehearsing their pitch at the University of Northern Colorado’s Monfort Entrepreneurial Challenge in 2014

 

Some of the most impactful pieces of feedback were also the most sobering, but the team forced itself to be open to any and all criticism. Narrowing its business plan to the legal profession set JustLegal on a blue-ocean course that very few startups in the industry were taking.  The novelty of niche specialization, combined with a commitment to investigative process improvement, helped to turn the tide in their favor towards the end of 2014.  They soon began winning competitions and awards.  In addition to being named Boulder Chamber’s 2014 Venture of the Year, the team placed first in Boulder’s Esprit Venture Challenge, Denver’s Pitchers in Pitches and Boulder’s 2015 IBM Smartcamp.  This latter victory was just what the company needed to gain legitimacy.  It propelled them on a years-long journey through IBM’s national qualifying rounds, eventually leading to the launch festival in San Francisco in 2016, where JustLegal was named a Top 10 Global Startup.  In an interesting case of creative collisions, the Leeds Scholars program was also in the Bay Area at the same time on its annual Entrepreneurship Trek.  JustLegal team members were able to mingle with their junior counterparts from CU-Boulder, mostly underclassmen business majors, one of whom they hired as an intern.

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Another crucial pivot point for the company involved the decision to change the company name.  Not once, but twice.  In its early stages, the company called itself “Congo”, an amalgamation of the tagline, “consulting on the go”.  Since the website Congo.com was already taken, the group purchased Congo.io, on a lesser known domain.  One of the team’s early investors identified this as a problem, as most legitimate companies utilize the dot-com domain, specifically with companyname.com formats for its website, especially tech-based firms.  They gauged the interest of Congo.com’s owner in selling the domain name, and learned that the price tag was a princely sum of $750,000.  After having a good laugh over the thought, the team began moving towards a rebrand in late 2015, but not without injecting some fun in the process.  In the spirit of the competitions that had helped them so much thus far, they opened up the selection to the public through a crowd-sourcing contest.  Contestants could enter the naming contest for a chance to win prize money, the only rule being that the companyname.com domain must be available at an affordable price of no more than $3,000.  After receiving an alarming 700 entries, the team recruited another mentor, Natty Zola of Techstars, to help narrow the field.  After a mind-mapping exercise on numerous whiteboards, none of the entries excited them enough to adopt, so they donated the prize money to charity.  But they did use a mashup of some of their favorite entries to yield the name “LawBooth”.  The new branding conveyed a Turkish bazaar image, where the product for sale was legal services.

The team working in its first office during the Congo era

However, after operating for over a year as LawBooth, the team began to reconsider their company name once again.  Their new investors were not enamored with it, and users were focusing on the word “law” as an indicator of advice or news on legislation.  So in February 2017, the company became “JustLegal,” its third name in less than two years.  The first part of the name serves as a double meaning of expressing a narrow dedication to the industry, as well as an abbreviation of the word “justice”.  And adjusting to the word “legal” instead of “law” more appropriately reflected the legal services that they were connecting clients to.

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JustLegal is a company born and bred by CU-Boulder, and the team is quick to credit the Leeds School for its initial spark.  Beyond Yao’s entrepreneurial class, the team was influenced by other professors such as Liz Stapp of Leeds’ Center for Education on Social Responsibility and adjunct professor David Cass, who were instrumental with both advice and connections.  Among school-sponsored competitions, the team participated in the New Venture Challenge, Launch Lab and Catalyze CU, the latter being a summer program through which the company met its angel investor.

 Ogorzaly was a student in Stapp’s social responsibility undergraduate course the semester before he took Yao’s class.  Once his business idea began taking shape, he sought Stapp’s advice due to her expertise on value-driven enterprises and her experience as a practicing attorney before joining the academic world.  Stapp encouraged Ogorzaly and Cox to incorporate early to establish legitimacy during competitions.  Then upon formation, she accepted a position on the young company’s board of directors, a post that she still holds today.

“From the very beginning, all the signs were pointing to the fact that this idea made sense,” Stapp recalled.  “It was a market void that needed to be filled.”

Stapp describes her role as providing perspective, particularly with the many pivot points that the team has encountered.  Going the competition route introduced the company to many mentors, each with their own set of opinions.  Since the business idea was so novel, some of the advice was conflicting.  Stapp advised the company to be selective in whose advice to follow.

“I told them that the reason why this isn’t in the market right now is because nobody like them has brought it there yet,” she said.  “So listen to these experts, but don’t always defer.  You need to do what’s right for you.”

Stapp credited JustLegal’s success on the competition trail to necessity.  Many of the groups that they were competing against already had some form of seed funding to sustain their platforms.  JustLegal did not.  So they were using the competitions themselves – and any associated prize money – as those sources of early funding.  Which meant that they had to win, or else.  Since the team made winning an issue of survival, rather than simply justification for a hobby, the events became more than mere contests.

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Of the four co-founders, all but VanNurden is still with JustLegal today.  The company used its initial series of funding to attract seasoned startup veterans to its team and to improve and expand its platform.  Additionally, the team has worked hard to scale operations across its entire business plan, namely geography (from Colorado to Texas and beyond), user demographics (from college students to the greater millennial generation) and attorney specialties (from defense law to other practices such as personal injury).

The team in Boulder, Colorado during the LawBooth era

The company’s original target audience was the CU-Boulder student population, which the founders cheekily found to be captive – given the school’s annual placement near the top of the party-school rankings – and in need of criminal defense for offenses such as underage drinking.  But now that the concept has been proven, the group is in expansion mode.  In late 2016, the team relocated to Austin, Texas, to participate in the Capital Factory  accelerator program. In addition to being Ogorzaly’s hometown, Austin provides many of the same advantages as Boulder.  And for now at least, the move appears to be permanent.

“Geographic expansion is a methodical process, since we need to collect information on attorneys from other websites,” Ogorzaly explained.  “Once we have established our marketplace in Texas, we hope to raise an additional round of capital in order to continue to expand nationally.”

To date, the company has connected over 200 clients to over 60 attorneys.  If all continues to go according to plan, JustLegal’s name will soon appear on the first page of results whenever someone searches for an attorney online.  Once users click on the company’s website link, they will have access to the most exhaustive directory of attorneys on the internet, with the most intelligent matchmaking algorithms to pair clients with attorneys.  The company is also working with other software providers such as online payment processor, LawPay, in order to bolster its platform.  The goal then is to become an end-to-end digital presence for attorneys, from outbound marketing to revenue management.

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For more information on JustLegal, please visit the company’s website or contact Frank Burns at francis@justlegal.com

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About the Blogger:

 

Timothy Bracken (MBA’11) is a Leeds alumnus and contributor to the business school’s alumni blog, focusing on startups founded by Leeds students and alumni.  He lives in the Denver area with his wife and two children.  If you have suggestions for future articles, you may contact him at tmbracken2@gmail.com.