Each year, millions of civilians—non-lawyers, that is—represent themselves in civil court, because they’re not poor enough to merit free legal aid and not sufficiently affluent to afford attorney fees. Of course, the other side typically has legal representation. And that puts those civilians struggling to navigate the system at a severe disadvantage. “It means that middle-class people end up being shut out of the process,” says Sonja Ebron.
That’s why, in 2019, she and co-founder—and wife—Debra Slone launched Courtroom5. Its platform provides a five-step process that allows users to hire lawyers able to help with limited portions of their case, thereby creating a more affordable system.
Lowering the Risk for Lawyers
About 30 million people who aren’t lawyers handle civil court cases, from home foreclosure to debt collection, each year, according to Ebron. Most are relatively simple, small claims situations. But roughly 7 million of those are what Ebron calls “protracted” litigation—“Not just Judge Judy cases,” she says—that require a fair amount of legal expertise.
Ebron, a PhD in electrical engineering with a background in artificial intelligence, and Slone, a PhD librarian and expert in qualitative data analysis, had a fair share of their own unsuccessful attempts at representing themselves. They talked about their losses now and then and, eventually, they pinpointed a particularly tricky problem. In most situations, regular people could handle much of the process on their own, using a lawyer for limited parts of their cases. But any attorney they hired would have to understand the entire thing or risk committing malpractice. And that meant hours of billable, costly work.
They figured, however, there were many small and solo firms looking for clients that would love to be able to take on such cases on a limited basis. Plus, Ebron says, lawyers hire their compatriots for fractional work frequently, so it’s a scenario they understand.
The answer, they decided, was to develop a system that, says Ebron, “would lower the risk and time for lawyers, enabling then to serve people who otherwise couldn’t afford a lawyer.”
Mimicking the Behavior of Lawyers
In 2017, they bought the domain and created a WordPress site on which they started posting such basic information as what to do when somebody first serves you and the structure of a legal document, along with providing a place for people to store their filings. They also built an online community. Then in 2019, they formed a company.
They also listened to customer feedback. “Like any startup, you want to put whatever you can out in the market and let people tell you what your product should look like,” says Ebron. So, they watched how users navigated the platform and then made changes to create an easier to use process. For example, when they observed that people were having trouble finding sources for appellate decisions, they added access to case law information providers.
They ultimately developed a platform, introduced just about two months ago, helping people mimic the behavior of a lawyer, taking the same steps a lawyer would. Then a real attorney listed on the platform can step in and immediately understand the context of the case. (There’s a $75 a month subscription fee).
To that end, there’s a five-step process that helps users understand what action to take at any point along the way. It also provides legal training to help people understand those options; analyze the legal elements of their case, so they can make the most appropriate legal argument; identify legal authorities and precedents that show the judge the arguments are valid; and prepare a legal document that assembles all the information and, says Ebron, “looks like a lawyer prepared it.”
As for lawyers, they can step in at certain points and do a specific task—everything from ghostwriting to reviewing documents before they’re filed and helping users find the right precedents.
How does it work? Say someone is being sued for debt collection and, thanks to information provided on the platform, sees that the debt collector had not properly pled the case. They might want to draft an argument, but, after reading the relevant case law, realize they aren’t sure how to choose the right cases. With that in mind, they can hire a debt collection specialist in their state listed on the platform—the lawyer would have indicated their services and fees on the site—paying upfront for the work they need.
Developing the platform took time. Ebron and Slone tried it out about a year ago, but learned they needed to provide access to more robust information for lawyers. So they rebuilt the infrastructure. “This is only version two. I’m sure there will be three, four and five,” says Ebron.
So far, Ebron and Slone have raised around $1 million from friends and family, pitch competitions, participation in Techstars, Google for Startups and Coralus, a funding organization for women. The team is six people and about two-thirds 0f the six-person advisory board is lawyers.