There’s always risk in everything we do. The greater risk is being stagnant and losing clients...
It’s no secret. The disruption of the Australian legal and conveyancing industry is now well underway. QLD-based Virtual Legal founder Katie Richards has her ear to the ground listening to what customers really want. With no office but an anywhere, anytime, online legal service, her Virtual Legal business model has parallels with the growing e-Conveyancing network goal of vastly improving consumers’ experience of owning and transacting property as Katie explains – sometimes controversially – here.
Going online is a genius solution as lawyers can work anywhere with their laptops
Legal people are probably the slowest on earth to change by building digital strategies into their existing business models. We’ve been waiting for e-Conveyancing in Queensland for three years but still can’t use the system if the lawyer on the other side wants to do it manually. I understand that as lawyers we naturally don’t like risk and eConveyancing is different to what we’ve always known. But hopefully in the near future they’ll see that working in the online space is a genius solution for property lawyers as they can operate from anywhere providing they have a laptop or computer. Even better they don’t have to chase down transfers, muck around with cheques and spend an hour on the phone each time settlement has to be moved.
Why some lawyers are slow to go hi-tech with property matters
People are scared of change. But the greater risk is being stagnant and losing clients because lawyers don’t come to the table to embrace a future that is already here. The world is changing. It’s those in the legal fraternity that are often fearful of innovation. They have this habit of stepping in the way of breakthroughs and changing things back to what suits them and how they’ve always worked – that includes e-Conveyancing. The problem is that they fear the unknown. But the biggest risk really is not keeping up with the times because as clients push for better efficiencies and question the legal profession’s pricing and value, they may not be able to sustain a commercially viable practice if clients just go elsewhere to a firm that is online.
The greater risk is being stagnant and losing clients
There’s always risk in everything we do. The greater problem is that by remaining stagnant and inflexible to change some practices will lose clients because they haven’t embraced hi-tech smarts. The world is changing. It can be risky to try but even riskier not to. Our business model appeals to people who are innovative and want to do things differently and only get paid if they’ve performed – isn’t that after all what the public expect from our profession?
How does your Virtual Legal business work?
Virtual Legal has 112 different fixed fee products. We record our time so that we have a record of everything that occurs in each file but there’s no overall time-charging, just one flat fee. This encourages our lawyers and all staff to be more customer focused and work efficiently. I currently have three employees and the rest are contractors including some travelling to find work in other countries. Working with contractors I can be nimble and adjust my business operations as I need to. This flexible approach has exposed me to many people and attracted up to 20,000 online connections.
We offer a full service legal advice but our structure is different to your typical law firm
We act like a publisher answering questions online. Customers answer questions about their particular situation and the system creates the contract, document, policy or agreement with the right clauses to account for them specifically, then uses the same algorithm to create the ‘human guide’ which is easy to read and explains simply what each clause means, how you can negotiate it and what to watch for. Then if potential customers want to engage a lawyer for more in-depth advice they can. This puts the power back in people’s hands. We offer full service legal advice within a structure that’s not that that of a typical law firm. I feel more at home with the tech fraternity than lawyers.
You push boundaries and take risks. Who was your inspiration?
I don’t really need inspiration – I have always been someone who naturally looks to a better way to do things. That’s how the entrepreneurial mind works so it’s just part of who I am. I have drawn inspiration from a lot of people, mostly non-legal. From a legal perspective I was always inspired by one of my lecturers and colleagues at Gadens Lawyers, Professor Sharon Christensen. I always wanted to find something that I could really excel at like she has, so that I could also one day be the ‘go to’ person even in a competitive industry like law. In terms of pushing boundaries and taking risks, the way I see it is that the biggest risk is standing still and being left behind. I only fail when I stop trying to find a solution.
How did you get the confidence to innovate?
Most of my career I’ve been thrown in at the deep end. I had to find ways to manage workloads and find efficiencies in how I perform so I can pack more into my day, because on top of a legal career, I also do a few marathons a year, was racing triathlons and have several other interests to fit in too. Workwise, after spending several years with McInnes Wilson and Gadens and as a legal advisor for corporations like eco-wash mobile international, Dominos, Price Attack, and NAB, I landed back in private practice after the GFC hit.
I started a business based purely around innovation in the legal field
My turning point came around the time that I was working for a corporate client acquired by GE Mining. I was working around the clock attending 2am teleconferences with the USA team, churning out contracts just as a part of the system with no feeling of purpose, no motivation and no option to innovate any of my systems without getting six levels of red tape cut. It was a little soul destroying especially after working in corporations where previously I had free reign to innovate my processes and have input into creating efficiencies in other areas of the businesses through the executive team. And I knew I couldn’t change the system, or have any impact when one of my superiors – to whom I suggested some changes - told me to ‘stick to what I’m good at’. So I did. I left and started a business based purely around innovation in the legal field. I didn’t set up Virtual Legal to be innovative. I did it to address a social need. It just required a lot of innovation because the current model doesn’t work for a large portion of the population.
We’re a tech company that happens to be in the business of law
When I left GE Mining, I decided to focus on business that’s more in the creative space. I started working on one of my side projects the ‘virtual wardrobe’ but the software developer who was prepared to build and fund it wanted a 90% share in the company. So, I set up Virtual Legal as a part time job to fund it myself. After studying the traditional business model and doing research into what people really wanted via social media, I realised my true focus should be on innovating in law. So my part time business became my legacy business. From a global perspective, and especially in start-up and tech circles, we’re known as a tech company run by lawyers. You don’t need to come from a law practice to work here. We think differently to law practices. We’re a tech company that happens to be in the business of law.
85 per cent of the world is currently priced out of legal advice
Virtual Legal’s goal is to make its global law portal accessible by the majority of the world’s population currently priced out of legal advice. That vision of reaching ordinary people includes making law understandable with legal TV segments on YouTube and explainer videos in cartoon format. My goal is to use my global portal to reach the 85 per cent of the world currently priced out of legal advice. I’ve shaped our system to include personality profiling and the psychology behind it to better tailor advice to suit individual customers’ specific needs.
People are after certainty when they seek out lawyers
Toward the end of this year, we will be releasing what may well be a world first – a public legal portal. Clients will be able to run their own legal matters. This will be called Law on Earth, and it will be free for the public to log in to for answers to a lot of their general legal questions. They can also watch the hundreds of videos in the legal library to learn how to run their own matters. We offer reasonably priced legal advice options in the system. For example, lawyers ‘video in’ for 20 minute advice sessions so that they can review the documents the client has created using this smart technology. People are after certainty when they seek out lawyers. With our service they will know exactly what costs they will incur. People can benefit from a reasonable amount of advice in 20 minutes. The advice session is covered through legal liability insurance.
The real pain point for the public seeking legal advice is affordability and transparency
Both the customer and lawyer are online and could be working and communicating from anywhere – even sitting at home in their pyjamas. The premise is that people pay the same amount for the service no matter where they live in the world. There is a strong demand for the platform in the UK. We have been in discussions with several UK corporates and the government innovation division but we’ll launch in Australia and New Zealand first to tweak the model. My longer term plan is to franchise the model to all the major continents with lawyers working for me as far afield as the UK, USA, Italy and Portugal. The key to the system is addressing the real pain point the public have – affordability and transparency. The system gives them a way to do most of the work themselves under the risk parameters built into the smart technology. Of course they still get the lawyer to provide advice.