It was a hot and humid Saturday and I really did not want to spend my time in a dark damp dungeon in the middle of Amsterdam’s Redlight District. But I had to. We, a small community of charity lawyers-in-training, were granted access to only a single computer which resided on the University of Amsterdam campus. I decided, no more…I'll build a robot.
My First Lesson Building a Legal Product
Back in the late nineties, I was a 3rd-year law student and I volunteered to work for a student-led NonProfit Legal foundation. We focused on providing free legal counsel to low-income groups. In the evenings I’d travel to an infamous neighborhood in Amsterdam called ‘Bijlmer’ with pencil and paper to do interviews and intakes on client issues.
In hindsight, I realized these cases weren’t earth shattering, complex nor unique. Yet they were to me. Now after every intake a lot of drama and stress set in. Why? In order to do research and draft letters for our clients we each needed to schedule time back at the campus. The reason: we only had one computer awarded to our foundation to service all clients. You can imagine scheduling was a nightmare, especially taking into account legal deadlines and in some cases people’s livelihoods.
Because years of knowledge from my peers and predecessors resided on this single PC I got this idea. I would gather all the documents on that computer, categorize them by topic e.g. labor, tax etc, rip some library CDs and online reference materials from our university library. Then I converted and saved everything to a single floppy drive as an HTML website and walla! I had built my first mobile legal knowledge portal. This amazing feat took me a couple of weeks but now I could stick this floppy in any PC and start working. No internet needed. Just look up similar cases, amend and you were good to go.
I made copies for all my colleagues and prepare a Steve Jobs-style presentation for our annual foundation gathering. So I presented this marvel to my peers and then…blank stares and silence…I could sense this wasn’t going well.Yet, at that very moment, I discovered my purpose and I’ve been waiting for cheers of delight ever since.
Takeaway: It doesn't take money to build something, it takes ingenuity and passion.
My First Lesson Selling a Legal Product
Moral of the story: instead of devising a clever scheme to outsmart my fellow frustrated ‘friends’, I would rather solve the problem with tech to benefit us all. It was crude by all means but at least it was something portable.
So I waited for a response…any response…and there wasn’t any except the ever so lethal: “Ooh, looks nice”. Years later I think I’ve figured out what went wrong. First, I did not involve my peers enough in the idea behind the portal. I think they were startled by my effort and couldn’t figure out a proper response.
Second, my pain wasn’t shared by the rest so the value of this product got lost on them. I did use the floppy for a while but I still needed to go update my ‘portal’ at the dungeon with the latest drafts from my colleagues. However, while getting a PC was already a struggle for most, you also needed a printer. I had both at my dorm but most didn’t. Worse, they did not feel the need to buy a PC, books were more important. I figured they would just as well use a PC at a local internet cafe but it seems the students liked the dungeon.
Finally, I did not put any effort in marketing this product. I just assumed I would build and they will come. I did not factor in the story of why it’s useful because it was obvious to me.I needed to explain it a bit more rather than just show what it does and how it works. In hindsight, I believe it was obvious to most but the why baffled everyone.
Takeaway: Spend more time on the ‘why’ than the ‘what’ or the ‘how’ of a legal product. Understand the pain and amplify it emphatically.
My First Lesson Building a Legal Business
Fast forward 14 years of experience in building digital legal products and I realized something else. Something that dawn on me recently while preparing another “Steve” style presentation about future trends in legal services.
I can preach but do I practice? do not have such a marvelous history to back it up. So if I want my message to come across I’ll need to do more than just preach it.
I’ll need to live it. I’ll need to build more robots. And I need to love doing it.
Everything is easy if you love what you do, even the hard stuff. And believe me, there is a lot of tough, dreary tasks that need to be done. But if you really love everything or at least think is fun, you’ll succeed. Currently, I’m growing my heart immensely.
Takeaway: You need heart, a big heart to love even the dirty side of succeeding.
I would like to take you all on this journey towards achieving my goal. I'll chronicle it carefully. I'll record all big (mis)steps and share them with you here. So please to meet you…I’m Bondrew and I build robots for law…