This guest post was written by Vanessa Butnick Davis, Vice President of Legal & Managing Product Counsel at LegalZoom.com, where she is responsible for nationwide product and service development and strategic research. She was previously a legal consultant for FindLegalForms.com and SmartRules.com, two innovative legal startups.
By law, companies are perpetual. They exist separately from their creators and have the capacity to outlast any one person’s lifespan. In practice, businesses face their own ailments. There have been numerous attempts to catalog and rank the reasons companies go out of business, with study after study of the lifespan of public companies (see The mortality of companies) and the deaths of startups (253 Startup Failure Post-Mortems). But there has been no attempt to investigate the lives and deaths of legaltech startups.
The legaltech startup community is relatively new. It’s so new, in fact, that nobody’s really taken a hard look at what a “legaltech startup” is. There are some who squarely fit the legaltech description (I’ll call out LegalZoom and ROSS Intelligence for starters). But there are plenty of cases that could fall into any number of categories (if you can tell me the real differences between regtech, fintech and legaltech, I’m all ears), and so the variety of lists that people are keeping to track those startups are tremendously confusing.
Further, even if you are paying attention to the legaltech startup universe, it’s easy to get confused. Companies that launched doing one thing are now doing something quite different. This is often not simply a variation on a theme, but an entirely new mission and offering. Sometimes this new purpose is in the legaltech ecosystem, but sometimes it’s a pivot to a broader, nonlegal purpose. Which is more than a pivot. Traveling?
It’s also challenging to determine when a legaltech startup is out of business. Some companies appear not to have full-time tech support (or interest?), and their websites fall offline and domain names expire with disappointing regularity. Perhaps they are not completely or technically out of business, but with an unreliable platform, aren’t they constructively out of business?
Then there are those firms that launched with a splashy announcement, but years later have nothing on their websites except a “coming soon” or “sign up for our newsletter.” Are they still working? Are they preparing for a launch? Or will this placeholder never change?
I want to know more about these companies. For those that actually failed, what happened? According to the recently published Boom or Bust: the 2018 legaltech Go-to-Market Report, many legaltech firms lack thoughtful strategies for approaching their markets. Is this why so many legaltech companies are now out of business? It’s hard to tell. Failure is still stigmatized, perhaps particularly in the legal industry, which houses a collection of overachieving strivers.
There is some consensus that studying the failures of the past can help prevent mistakes (something something “doomed to repeat it”). Legaltech startups are not exceptions to this.
I’m using this platform to announce the launch of a legaltech graveyard. To badly butcher Thomas Edison, we shouldn’t construct these as failures—these were successful discoveries of ways that didn’t work. With that in mind, I’m choosing a different way of framing it: a kind of legaltech Hall of Fame for those no longer with us. I’ve created a survey, which I will also post on my (very popular!) Twitter account. I’m asking that those involved in a “failed” legaltech startup fill out this survey, so we can continue to build the already great legaltech community into something even more transparent and successful.
LegalZoom CEO John Suh often notes that failure provides valuable experience, and unless you celebrate failure, people won’t take enough risks or innovate fast enough. Let’s try, as a community, to celebrate the legaltech startups that tried to innovate in an industry that has historically been hostile to those kinds of risks. Let’s learn from what didn’t work and what did. It’s my hope that that will lead to true and lasting legal innovation in the future.
Vice President of Legal and Managing Product Counsel at LegalZoom.com, where she is responsible for nationwide product and service development and strategic research. Before joining LegalZoom in 2007, Ms. Davis served as legal consultant for FindLegalForms.com and SmartRules.com, two innovative legal startups, where she helped develop and improve each company’s suite of online legal offerings. She serves on the advisory board of PactSafe, a digital transaction management platform for web forms, and as a mentor for Law Without Walls. Forms part or 2018 ABA Women of Legal Tech.