Simplifying the Legalities: myRight
(Photo Courtesy of Subject)
This guest post is by Michael Niu, co-founder of legal tech startup, myRight.
According to the Court Statistics Project, there were over 106 million incoming state court lawsuits in 2010. That means there were over 290,000 people who went through state courts each day. They include single mothers who were getting evicted from their apartment, small business owners who hired a bad contractor, and children being divided between their parents.
In most cases, only a small percentage of these people can actually obtain legal representation from an attorney. For example, in Philadelphia foreclosure diversion court, a program created in response to the housing crisis, only 2.2% had access to pro bono legal assistance and 2.3% had a private attorney. Those without an attorney are left to fend for themselves and they often don’t have access to other resources. The current legal system has effectively accepted that access to a lawyer is the deciding factor in whether a person deserves justice.
Technology has transformed many parts of our lives and the internet has improved access to knowledge about both trending topics and obscure niches. However, these revolutions had not touched the legal sphere. This was a huge problem that my friends and I wanted to solve when we began myRight. Our fundamental mission was to help people learn their basic legal rights using technology.
TECH FOR LEGALITIES:
Most people with legal problems could really be helped by having even the most basic of legal knowledge. There are often a common set of laws that everyone should know when they face a particular problem. For example, if your house is being foreclosed on, you should know what the procedure will be and what options you have to not get kicked out. Talking to a foreclosure attorney could help you get the answers right away, but just getting into one’s office is often a hassle for someone who could be working two jobs and taking care of a family at home.
We figured it would be much better to recreate this experience online, where anyone can access legal information anytime in the comfort and privacy of their own home. With this as our premise, we created interactive guides and helpful articles to help demystify the law and teach people their rights. For example, we have a guide for car accidents that covers all 50 states and Washington DC. These guides and articles are also designed to be accessible on smartphones, which are increasingly bridging the digital divide and giving poor people access to the internet.
BUILDING A BUSINESS MODEL:
Let me say this though: social enterprise is not easy, and the for-profit vs. nonprofit dichotomy deserves a lot of the blame. Nonprofit legal aid has been notoriously limited by restrictions on their funding, such as not allowing them to tackle politically sensitive issues like abortion and illegal immigration. They are also notoriously hesitant to even whisper the idea of building a profit model into their organizations, even while government is slashing their funding year after year. For-profit businesses that launch without a business model in mind often find themselves at the whim of investors. Some companies start out with noble goals, but become corrupted when the money begins to dry up.
We believe that the fledgling concept of a “benefit corporation”, already passed into law in a number of states, can become a reality by creating a company with strong values shared by all its employees, as well as a sustainable business model that prevents losing control and cutting corners. The struggle between the two can be a source of stress, especially with the noise of investor opinions circling around your head. To address this, we often have meetings dedicated to discussing how we feel about the direction of the company and whether it aligns with our own personal values. It is at these meetings that we agree that we want to continue providing our services for free to consumers, and we want to tackle real problems, not just our own bottom line. Armed with renewed passion, we can continue working toward our goals and remain unshaken when it comes to the “profit vs. values” conversation.
When you’re passionate about your work, you can be more creative and have renewed determination. You can create something truly valuable and find innovative solutions to problems. You may even find a way to tie it all together and make money with your values instead of against them. Avoiding the false dichotomy of non-profit vs. for-profit and all the baggage that comes with each can help you think big and create an entirely new institution. These are some of the values of the founders of myRight, and we believe that we can help solve the national legal crisis by sticking to them.