Valla is a new website which aims to educate people about their employment rights and help lawyers give clients a better idea of their expectations from employment tribunals.
Danae Shell says one statistic jumped out at her when she was researching her latest business venture. Nine out of 10 people with a legal problem would not use the term legal to describe it.
She says: “They would describe it more as a moral problem or a bit of bad luck and for that reason many are not getting the support they need. As an American in the UK I find that very strange. I could see there was a big opportunity to make an impact. Of course, even if they know about their rights people might decide not to do anything about it, but I want them to make an informed decision.”
That interest in transparency has is behind her decision to co-found Valla, a website set up by her and Dr Kate Ho, two women from a tech background who describe themselves as being “tired of hearing the same story over and over”.
Danae moved from the US to Edinburgh 16 years ago for her master’s and worked as a software engineer before moving to design, marketing and content management. Around the time of Brexit she became interested in legal technology as a way to help EU citizens in the UK navigate the system. The idea of using legal tech to help others stuck with her and she realised that many people she knew did not know their employment rights.
Valla was set up last summer. It has two functions: for employees, it helps them identify the employment situation they are in, what their rights and options are and what good looks like; for employment lawyers, they provide data on how much they should settle for in employment law cases.
Danae says it was based on conversations with a lot of women who had suffered everything from maternity discrimination or harassment. What she realised was that the patterns were the same. “People said they thought it was just them, that they were making it up or that it was their own problem. It’s a labelling problem really,” says Danae.
If people don’t know their rights, she adds, it is hard for them to Google them. That is where Valla hit on the idea that storytelling was the way to reach people. So it has set about collecting people’s stories of bad treatment. “The idea is that they can read about people being bullied or harassed or discriminated against and they can relate their own experience,” adds Danae.
Although she started with women’s stories, the site is open to everyone and the site documents racial discrimination or discrimination based on sexuality as well as other forms of rights issues, such as those related to disability. They are particularly keen to hear from dads. “We are interested in hearing from people who typically have not had a voice in employment rights situations,” says Danae.
The work with employment lawyers involves Valla pulling structured data out of unstructured legal documents. It has already created a prototype tool which it is testing in law firms.
Over the last eight months, Danae has been speaking to many lawyers and says they often don’t have the data they need to be able to set clients’ expectations accurately. “This is something the lawyers are asking for,” she says. Valla aims to gather data on cases with particular characteristics and what the average tribunal award is. Initially Valla wants to work with lawyers advising individual clients, but eventually they hope to also work with those who are advising businesses. “We want there to be more transparency so everyone knows what good looks like,” says Danae. “We want to create a sensible benchmarking tool.”