The Startup That Believes in Access to Justice

The Origin Story of Legal Tech Startup Courtroom5

Courtroom5 founders.

Going to court can be intimidating – especially if you don’t have a lawyer. And many people simply can’t afford one, which can lead to an unequal playing field in court.

Sonja Ebron, co-founder and CEO of Courtroom5, wants to change that. Her company’s mission is to help people navigate the complex US civil judicial system, from filing documents to learning legalese to addressing the judge properly. If you’re involved in a complex case like a messy divorce, Ebron says, chances are you’re facing an experienced attorney who’s “prepared to beat you up.” The harsh reality is that litigation is often a zero-sum game. “Courtroom5 is designed to help people level up, compete with those lawyers, and navigate the civil justice system so they can get a fair hearing in court,” she says. Read on to learn how Courtroom5 started.

Personal Experience in the Legal System

Ebron is an electrical engineer and has no formal legal training. However, she does have experience in the legal system. While working as a college professor, she got into some financial trouble and wound up being sued. 

Even though she had a decent income, she realized she couldn’t afford a good attorney, as the going rate at the time was about $300 an hour. “For any type of complex claim, your lawyer's going to spend a couple of hundred hours managing your case,” she says. “Most of us don't have 60 grand just laying around, particularly when [we’re] in financial trouble.” Although she tried to mount her own defense, it was too heavy a lift, even for someone with a good education. “I got my butt kicked very quickly,” she says. “We have courts that are designed by lawyers, for lawyers.”

Ebron also realized that there were many people who had more difficult cases than she did, with less education and fewer resources. They had almost no hope, she says, because of the adversarial nature of the legal system. “You are there against a very experienced litigator oftentimes, and the judge is really a referee. They've got to be neutral [and] can't help you at all. And so the average person just gets no fair chance to explain the facts, apply the law to their cases.”

Ebron’s wife also experienced her own legal difficulties and arrived at essentially the same conclusions. “So we had separate tracks and we realized at some point, we had to do something about this.” Having both learned to navigate the system themselves, they decided to “stop going to court and watching people get screwed” and offer a solution instead. Courtroom5 was born.

Legal Assistance for Those in Need

Courtroom5 started as a blog in which Ebron and her wife shared some of the hard-won lessons they had learned. People were willing to pay for that information, and they asked for help with other legal issues as well. The business blossomed. 

Ebron points out that every court case has many similar elements, including a complaint or petition to start things off, pretrial arguments, a hearing or trial, possibly an appeal, etc. “The flow of litigation is pretty much the same for any case you're going to handle. And so if you understand that and understand some of the rules, you can do the basic stuff yourself, if you have the tools and some basic education.”

To that end, Courtroom5 helps people file the right legal documents at the right time. It also offers services like records management, an intelligent chatbot that tracks your progress and helps move your case along, video-based training on a variety of subjects, explanations of the elements of your case (i.e. what you have to prove in court), legal research assistance, and even document preparation. 

Of course, there are some things that only a lawyer can handle. But hiring a lawyer just for those more complex tasks is a whole lot cheaper than hiring one for the entire case. Courtroom5 also candidly admits that its service works best for cases in which “the wheels of justice turn slowly,” such as debt collection, foreclosure, probate, divorce, and personal injury matters. It doesn’t work as well for matters like evictions, small claims, traffic tickets, wills and trusts, and restraining orders.

The company relies on SEO and social media for a lot of its marketing, but word of mouth also helps tremendously. “We get refugees from [the legal system] all day, every day,” Ebron says. “It's really, really sad. People who were able to hire a lawyer to get started but quickly ran out of money to pay them in the middle of a case.” For those people, Courtroom5 can be a godsend and help them to take their cases across the finish line.

Advice for Entrepreneurs

Ebron says she’s learned a lot running Courtroom5. For one thing, budding entrepreneurs need to check their egos at the door if they want the best chance of success. “You have to have a huge ego to want to lead a startup,” she says. “You've got to go into it like you are going to change the world and only you can do it. At the same time, it really gets in the way. It can so easily turn into arrogance.” 

With that in mind, Ebron says she tries to stay humble, knowing she doesn’t have all the answers. “I question myself all the time. Not in a way that introduces doubt about what we're doing, but just to get a different perspective. It has been so helpful for me.”

She also says that entrepreneurs can easily be paralyzed by indecision. At some point, you just have to go for it and begin implementing your idea, even if it isn’t fully formed and you still have doubts. “Don't wait. Wherever you can start, that's where you start. It's going to evolve, so don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Find a problem you want to solve for somebody, and then find the people who like your solution.”

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