Who are you and what business did you start?
Katie Richards is a legal tech entrepreneur working tirelessly to address the global access to justice issue via her public self-service legal platform Law On Earth and online law firm Virtual Legal.
What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Virtual Legal was established in 2013 when I discovered that so many people (74% of Australia alone) couldn’t afford basic legal help and also didn’t quality for community legal centre help or LegalAid. I set up a membership portal to give them free guides on how to manage a bunch of different life situations and then when they needed help, I would do the parts they couldn’t do themselves, to try and help reduce their costs.
In 2016 when Virtual Legal was growing fast, I had a fire extinguisher blow up in my face in the office during fire safety training wiping my memory initially and then causing massive post accident fatigue issues. The only way I could keep operating VL was to write more detailed guides for my clients to self-manage a lot more of the legal work and then I would have to sleep on my floor for a few hour then wake up to check their work. That’s when I worked out how to really solve the access to justice issue – teach them how to properly self-service. So we built a platform to do this underneath VL and then in 2018 split it off into it’s own entity and Law On Earth was born.
Now Virtual is growing super fast again (nearly 400% in past 2 years) as the lawyers use the platfrom for running workflows and for the efficiencies in drafting internally, and Law On Earth is a public platform now also servicing corporates and employee wellness providers where we are the legal services provider to their 300,000 staff as part of the wellness program. We also have a heap of accelerators, accountants, financial planners and larger franchisors using it to provide legal support to their connected businesses, startups, franchisees, clients, staff and group entities, etc.
Describe the process of launching the business.
As noted above, I suffered a major head injury which was a challenge all in it’s own as my capacity to handle and grow in the grind was severely hampered, so I had to turn even more so to technology to get the same amount of work done with much less effort.
I face initial resistance from the legal fraternity who couldn’t get their head around how we were managing to do legal work online back in 2013 until around 2015 when we’d really proven the model works. We also faced issues in getting lawyers to join our team because they were nervous to try something different. And given we didn’t charge anywhere near what other law firms did, we had budgetary constraints too so I had to be resourceful in other areas of the business to allow more funding to flow to the wages.
We also faced challenges in building out new systems and being a non-technical founder and then working around time zones with tech teams in India, the Ukraine and the Philippines.
We had difficulty in finding proper market fit for some time with Law On Earth because we had to find a solution that was sustainable and profitable but the cost was low enough so the people who had no access to justice could afford it, but the functionality was solid enough and high quality so the corporates would use it, and the lawyers were also happy and stayed on the platform rather than just using it as a business development too. That was the biggest challenge other than funding.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
COVID impacted Virtual Legal when the property market closed down for a few months but each member of that team were already cross-trained into other fields such as commercial and insolvency, so we didn’t put off any staff at all and came out of COVID stronger than ever, growing over 100% in the first 6 months alone while other firms struggled to learn how to operate online.
We always had a back up plan in place as part of our weekly risk & opportunity assessment meetings, so it was a matter of literally calling a staff meeting and ensuring everyone knew what Plan B looked like. All staff were already set up to be able to work from home at any time, so the day the first lockdown was called, I just gave my staff the day to organised, and we started zoom meetings each morning for the coming few weeks, then they went to bi-weekly checkins instead.
Law On Earth did well because many people couldn’t afford lawyers and many lawyers lost their jobs so they needed a way to get some work to pay for their lifestyles when many firms were shutting down and going under, so they became advisors in the platform. LOE was impacted when our champion at Drake went on maternity just as COVID was hitting and the people replacing her didn’t execute on the contract for what they deemed as COVID issues for their clients, but she’s back now and is rolling out the program.
So even though we faced challenges, we were built for COVID and were already prepared for most challenges, had cash stocks available, had a disaster recovery and business continuity plan ready to roll out, and our teams could respond instantly to a change in working environment and client demand.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
In the last 12 months alone, we have helped over 820 individuals and charities, social enterprises and small business, in everything ranging from family law to landlord issues, domestic violence to traffic issues, bankruptcy to litigation and all things in between. Of those users, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and they have told us ways that the life has changed as a result of taking away this issue for them. For the interns who have helped up write articles and prepare guides, most of them have now gained employment and one has won a hackathon with our help such that she can now get a scholarship overseas for more specialised training.
The Queensland Small Business Commissioner now has a way to get free legal help to the hundreds of small businesses who come to them each year needing help before using the free mediation service, as we can support them via our probono platform immediately in most cases and then provide the law student for free also to step them through the rest of the process once the legal advice is given, so they still have a hand to hold metaphorically speaking.
We’ve become a point of referral for QLD Social Enterprise Council to send social enterprises and charities to get structuring advice when setting up and all sorts of help thereafter whether paid or probono. We also do a lot of free webinars and I teach at several accelerators free of charge then give free document credits and legal advice credits for the system to the cohort to get them started and solve their immediate legal issues.
We get a lot of feedback from our platform users and find better ways of addressing their needs. We’ve recently expanded our video sessions to include 4 people so they can have a support person there or a business partner/spouse/accountant present when getting legal advice. We’ve supported sporting teams and school events, and provided thousands of free documents to the wider Brisbane community via an article sent out by BCC which gave our special code for free documents with us in the height of COVID.
Our impact has had flow on effects showing of those users interviewed, 31% had improved health and reduced anxiety issues, 11% had taken advantage of new opportunities, 9% had a path forward for dealing with a dispute and 17% felt more confident in preparing their own agreements moving forward. 84% had not ever engaged a lawyer or used a legal platform before, but had a positive experience and would use our platform again.
So we believe this shows we’re having real impact on the access to justice issue plus the follow-on issues as a result.
In the future, we’re looking to repurpose the same content, guides and videos and get Compulsory Professional Development (CPD) accreditation so that we can generate further income from selling courses to professionals and employers, so that we can continue providing better resources and probono support to the community. We may well be able to become a Registered Training Organisation (RTO) so that we can create a certificate or diploma teaching people how to be a paralegal. This could very well increase employability of those in the community with limited education, plus help university students with limited ability to get work experience get trained on daily tasks in a law firm. It may also help those with physical impairment who need to change career and do more sedentary work, and for people in remote areas where there may not be work, so they need to work online to earn an income.
We’re reaching out directly to all known enterprise wellness groups and platforms so that we can try and get legal help as a part of the package they get with employment, not just a gym membership or company umbrella. Dealing with mental health is a key focus for the future for us and it starts with the employers better understanding how they can help, and in turn have lower staff turnover and more productive, happier workplaces.
We’re connecting directly with other government bodies and looking to become the provider of legal education to programs like the National Enterprise Incentive Scheme helping unemployed people build their own small business rather than job hunt.
We are looking to set up a recruitment element to the platform for those interns who do a certain number of hours probono helping them get employment with law firms and other businesses moving forward once they have enhanced skills and higher employability from our online training.
We’re also looking to work with Centrelink and determine if there is an option to be an RTO for Jobseekers so that no matter what is happening during lockdowns with COVID, they can do training in our platform while they can’t job hunt and improve their skills, no matter what their background and education level – we can then help them get certificates and credentials along with practical skills.
We will be engaging with universities all over Australia to expand out the probono platform and get more students involved, after putting them through our training. Our intention is to also work with Education Queensland and several private colleges to provide our legal training in the Learning Management System to students who are doing legal studies or business studies at school as an elective so they can get real world training not just text book examples. We want the next generation to not grow up believing they are not deserving of legal help when they need it, and experiencing the self-worth issues many of their parents have experienced during their lifetime as a side effect of a lack of access to justice. Education is the key and is our focus for the future.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Make sure you’re solving a problem:
Lots of people come to me for advice on their idea, and their idea is to build a product that they think is cool and they think everyone else will like it because their mum said it was great, but it doesn’t solve any pain point. If you’re not solving a pain point, no one is going to give you their money for it.
Feedback is your friend:
The best thing you can do is to go out looking for someone to tell you what’s wrong with your idea, so you can be better. For both business, Law on Earth and Virtual Legal, we actively sought out constructive criticism on the platforms both nationally and internationally, so they could continue to improve and better solve the pain points for our clients.
Make a plan:
You’ll hear some people say to throw your business plan out because you can’t just rely on a business plan. I just think that’s complete rubbish. You need to know where you’re going. If you don’t have some kind of map as to where you’re going, then you will fail.
Choose your coaches wisely:
I’s encouraged entrepreneurs to seek out their advice from trusted sources who have been there before, and would be with you on all parts of the journey – not just the highs. Just be careful with who you’re taking your advice from and pick the parts you like and leave the parts that don’t work for you.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
For Law On Earth, we created our own custom platform. If you wanted the specific tech we use there, let me know and I can chat further with our CTO. Otherwise we use programs like Figma, Slack, ClickUp, Loom, Jira, Intercom and more in the day-to-day running and communication of the business.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I have an Audible subscription and listen to all my books or motivational speakers when I’m driving or working out. One book that I’ve listened to at least twice, and recommend to every founder or entrepreneurs is Clock Work by Mike Michalowicz. I also found The Lean Startup, Venture Deals, High Growth Handbook, Measure What Matters and Radical Candour: How to Get What You Want by Saying What You Mean all great books – all listened to on Audible.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The best thing you can do is to go out looking for someone to tell you what’s wrong with your idea, so you can be better.