“The access to justice gap is huge — something like 80% of low-income people who seek legal help do not get that help. We see this as a technology infrastructure challenge.” – Tony Lai
As the legal industry continues to strive towards providing access to justice for all, companies are emerging that aim to solve this specific problem. One of these companies is Legal.io, a legal technology company that provides referral management and legal empowerment systems to legal organizations. In this episode of Law Technology Now, host Monica Bay talks to Tony Lai, CEO of Legal.io, about the company and how it’s working to close the access to justice gap including its partnership with large firms, legal aid networks, and bar associations. Tony also shares his predictions for which technologies will most impact the future of the legal profession.
Tony Lai is a lawyer, entrepreneur and evangelist for processes and systems that support openness and innovation, engagement, and sharing.
Law Technology Now
How Legal.io Aims to Close the Access to Justice Gap
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Bob Ambrogi: Hello, I am Bob Ambrogi.
Monica Bay: And I am Monica Bay.
Bob Ambrogi: We have been writing about law and technology for more than 30 years.
Monica Bay: That’s right. During that time we have witnessed many changes and innovations.
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Monica Bay: Which benefits not only lawyers and their clients, but everyone.
Bob Ambrogi: And moves us closer to the goal of access to justice for all.
Monica Bay: Tune in every month as we explore the new legal technology and the people behind the tech.
Bob Ambrogi: Here on Law Technology Now.
Monica Bay: Hi. I’m Monica Bay and welcome to Law Technology Now. We have a terrific guest today. It’s Tony Lai and he’s the Co-Founder and CEO of Legal.io. Tony, tell us a little bit about how you became a lawyer and your education because it’s really interesting and it was a lot of different places.
Tony Lai: Well, Monica, thank you so much for having me on this show. It’s an absolute pleasure to be being able to have the opportunity to talk a little about my journey and what we’re trying to do for the legal profession and for the legal system itself.
My journey is a little bit unconventional. I was born and grew up in England and thanks to my parents who’ve always offered me the chance to do any kind of education I’ve wanted. I was able to go to a really great school that allowed me to focus on music, and sports, and drama, and various things, and then that school set me up to be able to go to Oxford, where I studied history, and history was really where I got my love of societies. Even though I grew up as a bit of a geek taking apart computers and playing games and various things that are technical.
History was really what I found most challenging in high school and I was encouraged by great teachers and my parents to go ahead and study something that I found challenging, and at Oxford, I focused on the history of belief systems. So it was really about studying why people through the ages believe what they do, come to create the societies that they do. And it was from there that obviously as part of the evolution of how society structured themselves that I got fascinated by legal systems.
So from studying history as an undergrad, I did my first round of law school in England and qualified as a lawyer. And I worked for five years as a lawyer, I clocked my 10,000 hours, so to speak, which was a tremendous experience, just in terms of seeing the belly of the beast, you can say. It was a big law firm and I had the chance to rotate through a variety of different positions from international arbitration to a stint in Hong Kong, doing foreign direct investment into China.
And I ultimately settled in the technology media and telecoms division, where I had a wonderful opportunity to practice advising across Europe, Asia, and Africa on all sorts of different deals and got fascinated by the sorts of things that my clients were doing.
So having put in those five years I got to take another step back and jump into education again and I did a master’s in Law Science and Technology at Stanford, where they have a wonderful program and a wonderful ecosystem for folks who have done some professional practice and are really looking to expand their mind, expand their careers, and there it was a program headed up by Mark Lemley and Roland Vogel, and it was really from there that I got the springboard to do the things I’ve been doing for the last seven years.
Monica Bay: Was that the start of CodeX because I know it had that different title, wasn’t it StartX?
Tony Lai: Well CodeX and StartX, even though they sound similar, are two very distinct communities. I was fortunate to be involved with both. If I can give you a very quick background on both.
CodeX was a pre-existing community that was situated between the law school and the computer science department.
Monica Bay: Yes.
Tony Lai: And that’s something that Roland Vogel, along with a few folks set up a few years before I arrived but I was fortunate that when I was there at Stanford, at the law school, CodeX was a really natural place for me to take some of the thinking and ideas that I was brewing up with the support of, I think, Larry Kramer at the time was very encouraging of us.
Basically, taken on entrepreneurial approach to how we wanted to make change happen. And he suggested that we go and talk to Roland at CodeX, and so, from CodeX sprung this community of legal technologists, researchers, entrepreneurs that I was so fortunate to be embedded in during my time as a master’s student and then subsequently as a visiting scholar and a fellow.
Now StartX is something that is very different and I was also frankly very fortunate to be involved in the very early stages, and that had sort of been in the gestation period for a few months before I got involved, but that is the Stanford startup accelerator. And it basically has a mission, it’s a nonprofit that we fully set up independently from the school to accelerate the entrepreneurial education of the top Stanford entrepreneurs.
And so, as a separate community from CodeX but being able to be a part of both, I was able to really try and meld together all this innovation that was happening in the legal technology space with an experiencial education of what it takes to set up a start-up in Silicon Valley environment.
Monica Bay: Tell us a little bit more about the relationships of who was doing what and also you were already a lawyer, you were already had done that amazing amount of time to be actually practicing. What pushed you back to coming to the schools and what were the differences between those two and how did they work together?
Tony Lai: So what I think you’re asking me about is the difference between my professional practice and then the experience I had going back to college at Stanford.
Monica Bay: Sure, start there.
Tony Lai: And everything I took from there. So I think in a professional practice context, one of the key takeaways that I got from being in a big law firm was that much as you were learning from a sort of experiential practical environment, the pace at which you could learn was somewhat limited by the systems and practices of a major law firm.
Obviously, over the last few years I’ve been able to dig in much more into the different models of how legal services can be delivered, but I’d say the big law firm modeled generally, but seven years ago, it was still in its fairly traditional stage. I was at a great law firm, Herbert Smith, but they certainly were still in the model of hourly billing and they were still — it was still very difficult to conceive of ways that you could really scale yourself. The ways that you could scale your potential.
I felt like it didn’t matter how smart I worked in that big law firm environment. I would never be able to advance or achieve the impact that working smart might enable. And so it was really just the amount of how much time you put in there.
For me, as someone who saw the potential of what was happening with my clients in the ways that they were using technology to really scale, not just connection, but also their impact in terms of the number of people that they could positively influence.
I felt like I could take a step back and re-engage myself in some of these more, let’s say, progressive environments, when it came to utilizing technology, and that’s really what I found at Stanford. So to switch over to that Stanford ecosystem and that Stanford environment, I’d say this is sort of a ringing endorsement for anybody who does want to take a step back and go to a second round of college as it were.
I really knew why I was going back to college and that was to try and expand my horizons as much as possible. And the great thing about an environment like Stanford is that there really is no limit to how far you can take your own potential, if you make friends, you offer whatever skills that you can do. All on the basis that what goes in what happens comes around. There’s a really strong, not to get all heavy on you, but it’s —
Monica Bay: Hey, hey, I am right there.
Tony Lai: There’s a sort of karmic environment that I found by going out to Silicon Valley where it’s really you get out what you put in.
Monica Bay: I grew up in the Bay Area and I was at Santa Cruz and the third year of that which was very, very similar like all the East Coast people came pouring into that school. But it really — I had the same feeling you did about it, when I was lucky enough to become a fellow. I don’t think I ever understood even living there and being very cognizant about that.
What an amazing school that is and the people who are there, so I just feel so happy to be with you and the other folks there. But it really surprised me because I grew up there and I just never understood it until I walked in there. It really is amazing.
Tell us a little bit if you would about and I hope I’m pronouncing this correctly, Legal.io.
Tony Lai: So Legal.io, really came out from a set of research and experiments that we started off, not long after arriving at Stanford and just to give you a bit of context. I met my co-founder Pieter Gunst on the very first day I arrived at Stanford.
Monica Bay: No kidding.
Tony Lai: Absolutely. We were there in the courtyard of our graduate residence and we were all sort of like chicks in the headlights so to speak.
But, I went over and spoke to Peter and we got chatting about our similar experiences, both having been at big law firms, but having come to Stanford really to try and seek out opportunity to scale ourselves, to scale our impact, and try and make some positive change in the world.
And I think we were about maybe an hour-and-a-half into our first conversation and we said, look, whatever happens I really think we are going to be able to build something really great together. And it was somewhat self-fulfilling in having set that intention and having over the course of those next few months built a huge amount of trust between ourselves in terms of the way we thought about things, the way that we complemented each other.
And one of our very much shared passions was increasing access to justice and we had both experienced the notions that in a big law firm the only real chance you get to have that sort of direct impact on the lives of individuals in a different way than serving corporations was sort of some of the pro bono work that we were doing, some of the sort of really direct intervention work.
And we started off doing research around the ways in which legal aid organizations around the Bay Area were able to variously manage the flow of people coming through their doors and unfortunately we found out some of the really harrowing statistics involved with access to justice over the course of that research. Such that four out of every five people who are coming through the doors of those legal aid organizations are being turned away, either because of a lack of resources on the legal aid organization’s side or just because the individuals coming through the doors were just outside of that poverty level guideline that sort of demarcates where a legal aid organization can help out.
That turned into essentially a broader ecosystem analysis. We were thinking, okay, so there’s all of these different organizations who play some role within the access to justice ecosystem and we expanded how we looked at it to some other organizations, including bar associations, and these newer kinds of organizations called legal incubators, which are training young lawyers in how to address this notion of this justice gap in more scalable, affordable ways.
And so Legal.io was really born out of a desire to build the sorts of infrastructure that could really connect the different organizations that were in the broader ecosystem, help them managing that intake and manage the referral process, whether internally within their networks or to each other, and then really try and gather some outcomes about what were the results of these referrals, what was actually happening as a result of these services being delivered, and so that as an infrastructure was something that we felt was a gap essentially in what was available.
We saw all these different uber for law sort of marketplaces being set up; the Avvos, the LegalZooms, the Rocket Lawyers and UpCounsels and they were again doing I think this really interesting work around setting up that infrastructure, but they were all doing it in a way that we didn’t think was quite right. They were all trying to build a centralized brand and get everybody to join their brand and join their marketplace, and we are of the opinion that, hey, there’s actually a lot of really great organizations already out there who are doing tremendous work on the front lines and what if we were to take the kinds of infrastructure that an Avvo or a LegalZoom is using just for themselves and what if we were to make that available to all these other organizations.
So that’s the essential core of what Legal.io has become and we now work with many, many bar associations and legal incubators and organizations that are at the front lines of delivering legal services and we have made our infrastructure that essentially serves as a platform, that builds in artificial intelligence to augment their workflows, builds in best practices around user experience and really enables them to do that intake, referral, and outcome measurement for themselves.
Sorry, very long-winded way of saying what we do, Monica.
Monica Bay: No, it’s great. Tell us a little bit more about what you have done with the ABA area and how that is happening.
Tony Lai: So I really respect the folks who work at the ABA. I think it’s hard to sort of paint a broader picture of a single organization in many ways because it is such an august and multifaceted organization. I think there are a lot of different divisions and a lot of different people involved.
I was very fortunate to be invited to present at the Bar Leadership Institute earlier this year, which the Bar Services Division at the ABA puts on. And they do a tremendous job of actually working with all the local state and county bar associations from their perspective as the sort of umbrella organization in supporting the goals and the impact that these local and state organizations can do.
So it was off the back of having deployed our platform with the New York State Bar, one of the largest voluntary state bars out there that the Bar Services Division invited myself and one of our CodeX colleagues Susan Salkind to go and present at their Bar Leadership Institute, which I think is their flagship sort of conference/workshop for leaders, both executive directors and presidents of the various bar associations.
That was my first I think significant interaction with the American Bar Association and I was delighted to be able to present, less the specifics of our platform and more the process around which we look to conduct innovation. I think that was one of the key things that I hoped to be able to bring from my background and having established StartX and working with CodeX and really working at the Design School during my year at Stanford. Take some of these methodologies and offer them as a set of tools that various bar associations could use as part of their own change management and approach to innovation in what’s a pretty volatile, uncertain environment right now for a lot of bars.
But continuing on with some of the work that I am now doing with the American Bar Association, I have been really, really honored to be appointed as of this year by the incoming Bar President, American Bar Association President to the Standing Committee for the Delivery of Legal Services. It’s the Committee that has been involved really with addressing this notion of the justice gap.
And so post 2009 Great Recession obviously the whole middle class of America has really suffered another body blow and a lot of them are facing all sorts of different challenges, whether it’s foreclosures or job security issues, and the Delivery of Legal Services Committee is directly tasked with trying to address the ways, the techniques, the blueprints, the technology, the innovation approaches that can serve this group of people who are priced out of conventional legal services, but are not eligible for free legal services.
Monica Bay: And Jim Sandman is just amazing. I was just on a panel with him this week and he is amazing. One thing that I talk about all the time on this topic is his quote about 80% of Americans can neither find a lawyer or afford a lawyer and now with what’s going on it’s even worsen, and it’s very, very similar in terms of some of these issues.
Tony Lai: What I love about the approach that Jim Sandman takes is he embraces innovation, he embraces new approaches, he embraces the ways in which he sees the legal profession developing.
I was fortunate to be moderating a panel with Jim Sandman at CodeX FutureLaw this last year. He was coming back after giving the keynote the previous year and really giving an update on the state of legal services and how the delivery of legal services was important, but also the ability to embrace innovation and really measure outcomes was something that was so key to actually understanding how the money that’s going into providing legal service is really delivery a huge multiple in terms of social return on investment.
So he was again there at the Legal Hackers Summit that I was at in New York recently, again, presenting to a roomful of innovators, really bringing the message to the various groups that are looking to use technology and innovation to improve outcomes, he was bringing that message to them saying we have a real big challenge here in this country right now, but I believe that with your help we can really address it. And I think that openness to embracing change and embracing new ways of doing things is something that I really respect him for.
Monica Bay: Me too. I completely agree with you on that. What are some of the — you have been talking about innovations and there’s things like blockchains and other things, what do you think are the most exciting areas that are going to have the most impact?
Tony Lai: Well, there’s one specific innovation that I will — it’s a bit of a secret right now, maybe I will touch on it in a little bit if folks stay tuned in towards the end, but the most interesting developments, you mentioned blockchain is the ways in which the legal system as a whole can start using different kinds of technologies and infrastructure. That really seem very, very far over the horizon to some extent and yet I really do think have the potential to fundamentally transform the ways in which services and ultimately outcomes can be delivered upon.
There’s an upcoming conference that I will be talking at, at MIT in a few days, starts the beginning of next week, it’s the launch of law.MIT.edu and it’s a legal forum on AI and blockchain in legal, and so I am really excited for what’s going to be coming out of that.
We have been involved ourselves with the Blockchain Initiative at Stanford Law School. I can give a very brief sort of overview of where I think some of the sort of interesting things coming out of AI and blockchain will really be. And ultimately it comes down to, how can this help individuals and people. I am not that interested from the technology in and of itself. I am interested in the ways in which it can be layered into the ways in which people are currently operating, currently using legal services.
The ways in which people are trying to build trust, there are ways in which people are trying to build non-zero-sum games in which people can develop trusted relationships where everybody wins. And we’re seeing some of these — these sorts of non-zero-sum games develop in the sharing economy, for example.
And by talking about the sharing economy I’m not talking about Uber and Airbnb per se. I think they are organizations that have used the notion of peers interacting with each other and sharing value as a sort of an overlay over existing business models. When I talk about the sharing economy, I’m talking about something that is espoused by an organization I’m proud to be on the board of called Shareable, and this is really differentiated by the ways in which these sharing economies are being developed at the local level.
How do we develop economic spaces where value is not being extracted out to capital holders and ultimately that sort of quarter of the world’s — sort of total wealth which is sort of held in this slightly untransparent and unnovel world of derivatives and high finance, and how can we maintain sort of the value dynamics within local communities themselves.
That’s what I mean in terms of true sharing economy. We can develop out the non-zero-sum games at the heart of what I think law can really provide. That’s where I see potential for things like AI and blockchain.
Monica Bay: Unfortunately we’re running out of time and I could talk to you all day long, but you promised a little thing that you might tell us that is coming up.
Tony Lai: Well, it’s — it’s not something that we’ve announced at all really, but it just happened this weekend, which is a new partnership that we’ve developed with an organization called Twitch.
Twitch is an example of the kinds of organization that I think may really serve as a model for how legal services can be delivered in alignment with an organization’s values. Twitch is a company that has 2.2 million monthly users of their product, which is essentially a broadcasting product, which allows anybody to livestream themselves and build a following of people who want to watch them livestreaming, whatever it is that they care about, whatever it is creative that they are doing. It’s a little bit like YouTube except it’s a live channel.
And we have formed a partnership with California Lawyers for the Arts, which is a non-profit organization that operates a certified lawyer referral service in California to serve all 2.2 million monthly users of Twitch with their legal needs. And so it’s the kind of scaling partnership that we hope to be able to bring to the table with every single one of our partners, whether it’s a Bar Association, a legal incubator, we feel like increasing that surface area so that legal services are delivered at the point where people are actually encountering legal needs is going to be the future of how legal service is delivered. So we’re incredibly excited about that kind of partnership.
Monica Bay: Well, before I let you go if someone wanted to reach out to you, how would they do that?
Tony Lai: Please feel free to reach out to me directly at [email protected]. We have got a lot of exciting partnerships and developments coming out for both organizations that are within the legal ecosystem, but also lawyers themselves. We’re going to take a lot of technology that we’ve been building for Bar Associations and making it available directly for attorneys themselves so they can manage their own referrals, they can manage their own networks, and really plug in to where they can have the maximum impact.
Monica Bay: Tony, I can’t thank you enough. The time has flown and it was such a wonderful opportunity to have you. Any last things you’d like to say?
Tony Lai: Thank you for having me on here, Monica. One of the great things about CodeX and the legal innovation ecosystem generally is that we are building a tremendous community and you’re at the heart of building that community, Monica, so thank you as well.
Monica Bay: Oh, thank you. That’s very kind of you. Well, I am Monica Bay and that’s the end of this edition, and thank you for listening to Law Technology Now on the Legal Talk Network.
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