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Clive Rich, founder of Lawbite, talks to Workingmums.co.uk about creating a virtual legal platform for SMEs.
Barrister and professional negotiator Clive Rich has been a lawyer for around 30 years. Having worked in large digital companies like Sony, he saw that many of the most pioneering work was being done by dynamic start-ups.
“I was struck by their energy in contrast to the bigger companies,” he says. After leaving Sony he ran his own digital media law practice within a larger firm. “I realised all the major law firms were focused on big clients. The SMEs didn’t get a look in. There seemed to be a massive gap in the market given that there are around five million small companies in the UK who account for around 99% of all UK companies,” he says.
He decided he could plug that gap if he could set up a company which could offer SMEs affordable, simple legal advice. To do that he needed to harness technology and create a flexible legal team.
The idea was conceived in 2011 and he spent the next 18 months developing the software needed to achieve his vision and researching the market. After a soft launch at the end of 2012, his company Lawbite went fully public in September 2013. It is a virtual firm which offers SMEs an easy to use, affordable online platform with an array of document templates in plain English designed specifically for smaller businesses.
It can take SMEs from the beginning to the end of the legal process. If, for instance, they want to make comments on draft documents they can; they can also instant message their partners and get documents agreed, e-signed and stored online. “They don’t have to worry about meetings and emails. It’s all there online,” says Clive. The firm also gives clients access to a virtual law firm that is wrapped around the platform. “If people need help to fill in forms or need other advice there is a button where they can get in touch with our team of lawyers,” he adds.
The first 15 minutes of a conversation with the lawyers is free and then they get a fixed price quote on further advice. This is given via the platform in the form of instant messenger, Skype or phone. All of this is tracked through the platform.
Lawbite’s legal team, who are all fully trained, work remotely. All they need is sound legal experience, an understanding of SMEs and an ability to explain the law in plain English.
Clive said he looked around for lawyers who could fit the brief and found that there were a lot of women lawyers who had left law for family reasons because of the macho long hours culture. At Lawbite they can choose when they want to work – a moderator allocates requests for advice according to individual lawyers’ expertise. If a lawyer is contacted and can’t make an initial response within four hours and a substantive one by the end of the day, the work is allocated to someone else. “The lawyers can fit the work around any other responsibilities,” says Clive.
Currently Lawbite has 10 lawyers, but is negotiating with 25 others who have come through a job listing on Workingmums.co.uk. Twenty-two of these are women and three are men. The calibre is high, which is vital for the firm’s growing reputation. The remote model means its lawyers can be based all over the UK. The rates they earn are lower than on the high street, says Clive, but Lawbite does all the marketing, billing, collecting of fees and pays for insurance – many of these costs are deducted by the big law firms. “With all that taken into account, they are not much worse off than if they were working for a prominent law firm,” he says, “and they have the added convenience of being able to work where and when they want to.”
So far Lawbite has given 1,600 pieces of legal advice and the number of clients it has is growing month by month. They come via search engine optimisation, online advertising on Google and LinkedIn and partnerships with organisations like Start-up Loans, Cambridge Business School and Growth Accelerator. Start-up Loans refers the businesses it loans to to Lawbite if they need legal help, for instance.
Clive says that challenges for the future include continuing to grow the business and improving the technology platform which is what differentiates it from its competitors. Its model is getting interest from abroad. It has already had approaches from the US, Scandinavia, Ireland, Spain and India. “There are similar challenges everywhere for small businesses,” says Clive.