In this episode Erin Levine explains how her experience as a divorce lawyer led her to build Hello Divorce, a web-based DIY divorce portal that earned Erin a nomination for the ABA’s Louis M. Brown Award for Legal Access.
Erin Levine is a certified family law specialist, and owner of Oakland’s Levine Family Law Group. In 2016 she launched Hello Divorce, a “modern breakup service” that empowers users to manage the complicated divorce process online with easy to follow, step by step guidance and affordable, fixed fee access to top notch lawyers.
Speaker 1: Welcome to the Lawyerist Podcast with Sam Glover and Aaron Street. Each week Lawyerist brings you advice and interviews to help you build a more successful law practice in today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market. And now, here are Sam and Aaron.
Sam Glover: Hi, I’m Sam Glover and this is episode 152 of the Lawyerist Podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today we’re talking with Erin Levine about how she is trying to deliver better divorces through an online portal, Hello Divorce, which earned her a nomination for the American Bar Association’s Louis M. Brown award for legal access.
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You’ll notice my normal podcasting partner Aaron Street is not with me today, and I have a bit of a sore throat. So we are just gonna dive right into the interview with Erin. Here it is.
Erin Levine: Hi, I’m Erin Levine, Certified Family Law Specialist, and mother of two girls. I’m also the owner of Levine Family Law Group, a law practice in Oakland, California. And in 2016 I launched Hello Divorce, which is a modern breakup service that empowers users to manage the complicated divorce process with online, easy to follow guidance, and affordable, fixed fee access to lawyers.
Sam Glover: I like online breakup service. Has anybody ever called anything a breakup service before?
Erin Levine: I don’t think so.
Sam Glover: That’s pretty awesome. Erin, first you were practicing as a family lawyer, right? That came first?
Erin Levine: Yes, that’s correct.
Sam Glover: How long were you doing that before you started thinking through Hello Divorce, and building that?
Erin Levine: A long time, or what feels like a long time. I started practicing law and immediately jumped into family law in 2005. Then in 2009 I opened Levine Family Law Group, and then it wasn’t until 2015 that I started thinking about Hello Divorce, and then launched at the start of 2017.
Sam Glover: What was the problem that you were trying to solve with Hello Divorce? Tell me about how it came into your mind and what you thought you were gonna do with it, and what problems you were trying to solve with it.
Erin Levine: Sure. A couple things led me to want to start what is now become Hello Divorce. The first was that me and my firm, we spend a lot of time volunteering in local family law courts, and I learned that 90% of divorces in the United States have at least one self-represented party for at least one portion of the divorce, and 85% of people can’t afford full representation. Or if they do have full representation they’re leveraging some asset, or going into more debt. So A, I saw a huge problem in terms of access to justice, people being able to afford and access good, high quality legal help.
And then the second reason that I started Hello Divorce was that I was finding that within my own practice, clients and especially millennial clients, were really pushing us to offer more options. They wanted to be a lot more involved with the process. They were a lot less motivated by some of the motivations that we had seen in the past, like wanting to be vindicated through the court process, or wanting to gain revenge, or the things that hold us back from resolving actions. Instead, they wanted to find a more reasonable, quicker, more streamlined solution. So I thought, if in my little niche practice I’m getting hundreds of people that are looking for more options, then that certainly must be the case, at least across the state of California, and I wanted to see how I could address that.
Sam Glover: So you weren’t just seeing people unhappy with your pricing, it was actually different needs than just dollars.
Erin Levine: Right. If they were coming to my practice then generally they did have the resources to hire a lawyer, or they felt that within the action they’d be able to recover fees from their spouse. So it was less about price for me, in the moment, and more about wanting to come up with some new options so that people could be more involved in the divorce process themselves, which would in one way take down the cost, but and too, provide a more empowered experience.
Sam Glover: How did you decide how you wanted to meet that need?
Erin Levine: I did a ton of research on what’s out there.
Sam Glover: I feel like the fact that you developed a technology product, I imagine that’s not the process that you went through. So when you went looking, were you looking at business models, or firms, or technology? Or what did you have in your mind?
Erin Levine: All of the above. I was looking at firms and lawyers that were thinking outside the box, that were providing more user centric services, and I found a lot of really incredible firms in Australia that were doing that. I was looking at online divorce services that already existed, and trying to determine what don’t I want to recreate, because it’s working, and where are things failing. I was looking at innovative lawyers. And I did a lot of user research.
In the scheme of things, this is not a big survey, but I took about 300 people, who were either entering the divorce process, who were thinking about divorce, or who had actually been through the process, and I started asking them questions.
Sam Glover: Oh really? What kinds of questions?
Erin Levine: Like what was the most important thing to them? If they could have help from an online service, what would be most important. And what I thought I was going to end up with is everybody telling me that what they wanted was automated forms. That they wanted to enter in a bunch of information and have their forms pop out. And that was the least important thing to them. Of course, now they want it. They like the convenience once they’re involved. But it was certainly not the most important thing to them at all.
Sam Glover: How did you know, by the way, to approach it in this way? I feel like lawyers give people what they need, not what they want. And so asking a bunch of people what they want is kind of not the way lawyers tend to go about things. That’s how designers work, and so I’m wondering how you learned to do that approach? Or how you knew to do that?
Erin Levine: I did a sprint with a design firm. I had saved up some money through earnings with the Levine Law Group, my law firm, and decided that I probably didn’t have enough funds to hire them to design the whole site, but that I did think it was important enough to work with them on determining what people are looking for, what they needed and what colors were interesting to them, what was triggering to them. A whole plethora of different questions for them. In fact one of the designers, I just saw the other day that she did a blog on the actual process.
Sam Glover: oh, really?
Erin Levine: I’ll need to send you that link because it was super interesting for me, and to look back on it. But yeah, it was just, I’ve always enjoyed practicing law but not nearly as much as I’ve enjoyed the running of the business, and so it felt really natural to be looking at the problem from this perspective.
Sam Glover: I totally interrupted you while you were talking about what you were learning from those user interviews and stuff, and it sounds like what came out of that was definitely not what you expected, not the automated forms.
Erin Levine: Yeah, it certainly wasn’t. It was the first time that I took a step back from tech, although I knew that it was going to be a very important part of the process and to bring everything together to make it work efficiently, but it was the first time that I realized that while tech is important, there’s so much more. Especially for people who are going through divorce. And I was thinking about growing this business in many different directions too. I was thinking about, there’s so much more that goes into divorce, and bankruptcy, and breakups, and landlord/tenant disputes. These are all things that don’t happen in a vacuum. They are not single events. They are a journey. It is a long and lonely, and scary process. There’s cultural stigma attached to it. I really wanted to address the client at where they’re at. Not necessarily just what we could provide, that we’re good lawyers and we could coach them well through the process and the system.
You know, that is exactly what came out of it, is people said, “I want to know that there’s a human connection if I need it. I want to know that you care. I want to know that you understand. I want it convenient.” And this is just one segment of a giant population, but a lot of them wanted to know why they were answering a question on a form the way that they were. Not just having the form, be prepared for them. Because if, God forbid, the divorce became litigated or messy, they wanted to know that they would be in a position of power, that they would have leverage, and not just have a bunch of forms that they don’t understand.
Sam Glover: I totally understand. Okay, so we’ve talked about how you scoped out what you wanted to do with Hello Divorce, but what is the actual thing that Hello Divorce is now?
Erin Levine: Okay. What Hello Divorce is, if somebody is going through or thinking about going through a divorce, then they sign up for a free membership. From there, they get access to a whole host of real, curated articles about divorce and about some of the issues, both legal and personal issues, that they’re going to experience throughout the divorce, and real, practical advice for dealing with those issues. Then they also get a whole host of tools accessible to them, like a divorce worksheet, and access to our webinars, and a glossary of legalese made into plain English, that kind of thing.
Sam Glover: It sounds like you’re really trying to empower them to feel like they are in control of their situation?
Erin Levine: Yeah. Instead of offering teasers on the law, maybe like in a blog that I might do for my law firm, instead I am handing them real information that they can use. So that when and if they do pay us, they’re paying us for things that they expect lawyers to be paid for. Like problem solving, and strategizing, as opposed to, do I check this box or, what’s the basic law around community versus separate property.
Sam Glover: Is this free stuff in Hello Divorce, on Hellodivorce.com?
Erin Levine: Yes.
Sam Glover: Okay.
Erin Levine: You have to sign up for the free membership, so I get the email address.
Sam Glover: Yeah.
Erin Levine: Then they have access to all of that. When they’re ready to begin the actual divorce process, they use what’s called our Divorce Navigator. The Divorce Navigator is accessible to everybody, including people that are not signed up. However, to access things like our instructional videos and our downloadable templates, or any of our flat fee services, you do need to have a membership.
Sam Glover: That’s still a free membership though, huh?
Erin Levine: The free membership includes the tools that I discussed, as well as the curated articles and resources. The first level of paid membership is $99 a month, and that includes all of the instructional videos and templates.
Sam Glover: There are different levels of, essentially, coaching? Is that accurate?
Erin Levine: That first paid level, there’s no coaching at all. I’m not involved at all. So there’s no attorney/client relationship, if they are at that Do It Yourself Plus membership level. Because they’re using the Divorce Navigator, and they’re using the instructional templates and the videos, but they’re not necessarily connecting with me or one of my attorneys.
Sam Glover: And then they can get higher levels.
Erin Levine: Correct. The next two levels, one is a Paralegal Assisted Divorce. And then the Divorce With Benefits is a flat fee paid over time, that includes access to a lawyer for coaching and document preparation, strategizing, and all of that good stuff.
Sam Glover: I like divorce with benefits, it sounds like friends with benefits.
Erin Levine: Yeah. At any time, if somebody has a membership that is either the free membership or a lower level membership, they can still access flat fee services. And if they get stuck at a certain step in the divorce they can click a box and be rerouted to a lawyer, if one’s available, and if not then they can be routed to a calendar where they schedule time to speak with a lawyer.
Sam Glover: They can pick the level of service they want basically.
Erin Levine: Yes.
Sam Glover: We need to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors, and when we come back I want to talk about how you measure the success of that and whether it’s been successful. We’ll be back in a minute.
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Sam Glover: Okay, and we’re back. So Erin, now that we know what it is and how you built it, I’m curious, how do you decide whether or not it has been successful as an experiment? And do you think this is the future of your practice, or is it just an add-on to it? I just asked you two big questions together but …
Erin Levine: I definitely hope that this is the future of my practice. This is definitely the way I want to go. I want to expand the services that we offer, and if possible, expand beyond California. So I’m in it for the long term. It’s only been a year and I have to remind myself of that. There’s obviously financial pressures, and so if I’m not making some really solid money within about another year, then I might have to think about a redesign, or back to the law firm full time.
Sam Glover: Okay, I love though that you just said you might have to think about a redesign because, you believe the core is sound and so you just have to figure out the right way to do this rather than just, “Eh, I tried it and I’m giving up”, which may be the right outcome, but …
Erin Levine: The reason why I think that’s so important is because the first wave of people who have used Hello Divorce have successfully navigated divorce, have come out happy, are willing to do testimonials, are really pleased with how it worked for them. So that’s one way I define success, whether the clients are happy, whether it’s worked for them at the different levels of membership.
I immediately saw that the membership levels that we initially had were not working, and we’ve recently changed them. Although they are not yet reflected on the site, they will be in a couple weeks.
Sam Glover: Is that lower pricing, or what?
Erin Levine: No. I had a couple membership levels that offered unlimited email access to lawyers, to try to cut down on cost. And really what people wanted, or at least the people that came to my site wanted, was access to speak with lawyers as well, and they wanted to know the full cost from start to finish, not just month to month.
Sam Glover: Will the whole thing be built around package pricing then? So like, do your divorce for a thousand bucks instead of $99, until it’s done?
Erin Levine: Right. So now we have, for the new levels, and I’m just quoting them on a one by one basis and haven’t had anyone say, “No, I won’t do that”, so that’s a good sign. The new levels are, there’s a flat fee for a paralegal assisted divorce, and a flat fee for a lawyer assisted divorce. However, it’s paid over monthly installments, because most people can’t come up with three, $4,000 at a time.
Sam Glover: Wow, that’s interesting. Are you sharing yet?
Erin Levine: Sure.
Sam Glover: Because I’m curious, what do you expect it to actually cost?
Erin Levine: $2500 for a paralegal assisted divorce and 5,000 for a lawyer assisted divorce. But I had to work very closely with Megan [Davila 00: 18: 29], who I know is a friend and colleague of yours, and an ethics malpractice attorney, to ensure that we were complying with various ethics laws and that our terms and conditions, aka, our retainer agreements, are clear enough for people to understand what we cover versus what we don’t. So those prices cover an uncontested or moderately contested divorce. Meaning not a divorce that’s in court.
Sam Glover: I like that you’re going about this carefully rather than just throwing it out there and seeing if it works.
Erin Levine: Oh my gosh, it’s been such a challenge. Almost everything I’ve wanted to do, Megan said, “Slow down, hold on. There’s a rule against that. We have to find a work-around.”
Sam Glover: Well I mean, Megan, she wants to empower you to do it, but yeah, you’re wise to do it that way, I think.
Erin Levine: It’s been really challenging. And many other more traditional lawyers have really challenged me and tried to figure out a hole as to how I’m doing this incorrectly or unethically. So I’ve had to [crosstalk 00: 19: 28].
Sam Glover: Yeah. Has anybody reported you to the Ethics Board yet?
Erin Levine: Not yet that I know of. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened soon.
Sam Glover: Keep at it, eventually somebody will do it, I’m sure.
Erin Levine: Yeah.
Sam Glover: If you become successful enough, somebody will. You talked about, it’s successful because people are getting their divorce done through it, what about financially?
Erin Levine: Yeah, for financially, if you take out the money that I had to spend to get the site up and running and to make the changes, and to get some guidance on PR and marketing, and legal ethics, then the site is a financial success.
Sam Glover: Oh.
Erin Levine: But right now I’ve had all of those other costs that I don’t expect to go away for at least six to nine months. Primarily because it’s really important for me to become more visible and to convince the community at large that they can do this, that this is a viable option that actually works. And to do that I need help. I cannot do everything, especially as a mom of two girls, and I’m still managing the firm and doing the actual, practical, everyday work of Hello Divorce. So it’s really yet to be seen. It’s more about volume at this point, and if I can bring the volume in, then my projections are amazing.
In California alone, about two hundred thousand petitions for divorce were filed last year. So that’s four hundred thousand people that were thrown into the legal system right there, and that doesn’t account for all the people that filed for divorce the year before and weren’t able to complete the actual divorce, so they’re still within the system. So even if we got 2% of those people at even $99 a month, that’s a lot of money.
Sam Glover: Yeah, and it doesn’t cost you any more to serve those clients, the system’s already built. Maybe at some point you’ll need another paralegal to handle the volume.
Erin Levine: Right.
Sam Glover: Something you said a minute ago made me reflect on something else I wanted to ask you about it, which is that it’s not all geared toward just the mechanics of getting a divorce, you’ve included a wellness component. Tell us more about that.
Erin Levine: This is probably the most exciting part of Hello Divorce for me, and it is a moving target. Something that I mentioned earlier is that divorce itself is a journey. You don’t wake up one day and say, “I want a divorce”, and walk into a courthouse and get one, in the same way that you can get married. It’s a long process. It’s scary, and it’s lonely, and it’s heartbreaking. Even when both parties are in agreement and both parties believe this is the right step to take, it is still a really challenging process. There’s so much transition in someone’s life, and so I wanted to figure out a way that we could honor that, address it, help with it.
It initially started out as just another topic on our site, a lifestyle topic, where we include articles and videos from top wellness professionals, and divorce therapists and coaches. But people that were using it said they want more. So one easy way to expand on that was for me to offer now, webinars and articles on the wellness component of divorce, which I was able to do and I have done. Because that, again, has been so widely received, one of my most popular articles was on self care, that I’ve now decided to expand the wellness component even farther. I’m working with this woman, Allie Stark, in Oakland who is absolutely amazing, and we’re developing what we’re going to call the Hello Divorce, Divorce. Which, with each step of the legal process we’ll be offering a wellness portion as well.
So as an example, in divorce, oftentimes what it means is that either you have to move out of the residence that you’re currently in, or you have to figure out, because of financial constraints or because you want to put your kids first, you have to figure out how to navigate living at home with a partner that you’re no longer with. Or, your partner moves out and now you have a home that once was yours together, and now you have to navigate what the experience is going to be like, on your own.
That’s a really profound thing to grapple with. And so, one module, or one component, of this wellness program will be addressing that, finding safety and feeling good and taken care of and well in your own home, or whatever space that you end up being in.
Sam Glover: Very cool. I know that you have offered your self care worksheet, which we’re gonna include in our show material. So if people are curious as to a little bit of a window into what that looks like at Hello Divorce, you can download that if you’re a Lawyerist insider. So check that out, because I think you’ll find it interesting.
One last comment and question for you, Erin. How does it feel to be nominated for the Louis M. Brown award for legal access by the American Bar Association?
Erin Levine: I am so excited about it. I think that when I first started tossing around the idea of Hello Divorce, I got a lot of really funny looks. It wasn’t until I went to TBD Law, that was the first time that people actually looked at me, other lawyers, and said, “Wow, this is awesome. This is a great idea, I think it can help a lot of people.” Before that, I was operating in a world where people thought I was insane.
So on one side this feels really legitimizing, I’m super excited about it. But another part of me is just so thrilled to be surrounded by such innovative, amazing thinkers, and lawyers, and leaders. Access to justice is a core issue to me. I got into this business because when I was a teen I was a witness in a criminal action, and a plaintiff in a civil action and it was awful, and it was disempowering, and it was scary, and I never wanted anyone to have that experience again. I wanted to be more of a tour guide type person with the law.
To be able to now live out that dream through Hello Divorce, and have it be recognized, and be surrounded by such amazing people is super exciting. So just the nomination, in and of itself, and the people that I’m meeting because of it. And I hope to be able to continue to offer this to my community and beyond.
Sam Glover: Very cool. Well Erin, thank you so much for being with us today and talking more about Hello Divorce.
Erin Levine: Thank you so much. You know I’m a huge fan of you Sam, and Aaron as well. I’m not your Facebook friend, but I’m his.
Sam Glover: Well we’ll fix that right away.
Erin Levine: Good, good. If his life is even a quarter of as cool and as fun as it looks on Facebook, then I want to be Aaron when I grow up. I guess I am Erin. I want to be the boy Aaron.
Sam Glover: Thank you so much Erin.
Erin Levine: Sure, thank you.
Aaron Street: Make sure to catch next week’s episode of the Lawyerist Podcast by subscribing to the show in your favorite podcast app. And please leave a rating to help other people find our show. You can find the notes for today’s episode on Lawyerist.com/podcast.
Sam Glover: The views expressed by the participants are their own and are not endorsed by Legal Talk Network. Nothing said in this podcast is legal advice for you.