By Special to Capital Business
Monday, May 24, 2010; 28
Lawyers are a dime a dozen in this town. So are business problems. It just takes the right matchmaker to get them together.
As an MBA student, Ben Hatten spent a summer interning for a venture-backed start-up. One of his projects was to find the young company the right attorney -- a task that seemed simple enough until he spent 10 frustrating weeks trying to track down a lawyer with the right skills at the right price. Hatten got to thinking that there should be an easier way for start-ups and small to mid-size businesses to find the right legal help. He hatched an idea for a Lending Tree-type service for businesses to seek out lawyers and joined forces with a classmate at the time, Zach Girod. Girod had a tech background and the team built their Web portal, Legal River, and launched the new business in May 2009.
"Legal River helps businesses find lawyers confidentially and quickly. Instead of spinning your wheels looking for and interviewing attorneys or waiting weeks for a referral that doesn't pan out, post your issue once on Legal River and let lawyers compete for your business. Simply spend five minutes filling out our online form and then let the lawyers respond to your posting. Attorneys will respond with an estimated rate and number of billable hours along with a personalized message. This personalized message will highlight the unique value that the lawyer brings to your issue. With Legal River you can save time and money while gaining peace of mind that you have the right lawyer working for you.
"Legal River allows businesses to use its request-for-proposal system for free and charges the lawyers who are in good standing with their bar association a small advertising fee to respond. This is important for two reasons. First, because we operate under a pay-per-contact system and don't require any membership or subscription fees, Legal River is able to attract a wide variety of lawyers. Second, because there is a fee involved, you will not be spammed by lawyers who are not right for you. Attorneys will self-select, and only those who think they can add value will respond to your issue."
Legal River has been in the market for more than a year, starting first in the Washington, D.C., metro region, but expanding nationwide last fall. It now has more than 300 law firms across the country using its service, and Legal River is making several "matches" between businesses and attorneys each week. But the company is always looking to recruit more users. It just launched a new Attorney Reviews service with Facebook, allowing people to see what lawyers their social network has recommended.
J. Robert Baum, associate professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business
"There is a whole list of things that you did right -- starting with not setting out to achieve too much at once. You have a good competitive advantage in that you screen the businesses and lawyers for a potential "fit." But your most important competitive advantage is that you attend to details -- your execution is first rate. You've just added to your competitive advantages with the launch of Attorney Reviews. You've also have a very complementary team and you're never shy about asking for advice -- a great foundation to grow on. Now your biggest challenge is identifying the businesses that need legal advice.
"Your target market has the greatest need for legal advice when they experience change. The first change they experience is founding (How do I form an LLC? Where do I find a partnership agreement?). So, figure out where those new formations are. Try going to the state agencies where founders can register their business name, or a domain-name registry. They'll all be start-ups, and they will be looking for lawyers who will bid a relatively low rate. Also think about making connections with bankers and commercial real estate brokers who deal with young or growing businesses. Business brokers who list companies for sale are another good place to find entrepreneurs to advertise your service. Hook up with universities for the student businesses and the technology transfer start-ups that will inevitably need legal advice. Also think about Inc. magazine and Entrepreneur magazine as potential outlets for advertising.
"You've got the kind of business where scale will yield big profits. You've made a serious front-end investment -- now you just need to work on branding and building."
"We hadn't thought about approaching state agencies that keep registries of new businesses -- that's a good idea because the lawyers in our pipeline like getting clients at their inception because they know they could grow into something much larger.
"We're continuing to pursue partnerships with larger companies. Being a two-person team, we're very nimble, so we can pivot a lot faster than a lot of our bigger competitors. This is something some of them may do eventually, but we can get it up in a week vs. them having to deal with a nine-month product road map. When you're a new early-stage company, you really have to be willing to take some risk and outmaneuver the other guy. We're definitely keeping the conversation open with all of our bigger competitors -- if they do decide to pivot, it's easier to acquire us than to just run us over."