June 3, 2014 | 7-minute read (1228 words)
This guest post was originally published on Justworks.
We’re joined by Nehal Madhani, founder of Plainlegal, a marketplace that makes it easy for businesses and startups to find trusted lawyers.
After doing some background research, I learned that before having founded Plainlegal, you’ve served as counsel for multi-billion dollar companies at Kirkland & Ellis, LLP. Tell us about that transition.
NM: It’s been an interesting and challenging transition. Many of the skills I developed as a lawyer have been particularly helpful with the transition. I was a restructuring lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis, LLP, and my job typically involved helping troubled companies navigate court-facilitated bankruptcy processes to emerge as healthy, viable businesses. In that role, I worked with individuals with different levels of understanding about the process, ranging from sophisticated financial professionals and other lawyers to employees and customers who did not have any background knowledge. I learned to always be mindful of your audience and how to quickly adjust communications accordingly.
In developing PlainLegal, I have applied this skill to build something that helps all clients regardless of how much they know about legal issues. Lastly, the transition has been easier than I anticipated because at the core I am still doing what I practiced at Kirkland & Ellis: helping businesses solve their legal problems.
On your site you mention that you’ve built this platform to make it easy for startups and small businesses to solve their legal problems. That being said, what were some specific pain points you were seeing in the market and how does that inform your company’s mission?
NM: Many of the startups and small businesses we meet avoid dealing with their legal problems because there are pain points throughout the process. For our customers, the key pain points are (1) identifying the legal problem; (2) finding a good, affordable lawyer; and (3) working with the lawyer. Because these pain points are so prevalent, we often see startups and businesses taking a reactive approach to addressing their legal issues. This is why our mission is to make it easy for startups and small businesses to solve their legal problems. We believe that by eliminating these key pain points, we will see more companies taking a proactive approach to addressing their legal issues and considering legal advice as another strategic element of their business that can increase value.
Can you walk us through the process for an entrepreneur looking to find legal help using your site?
NM: We have a streamlined process for entrepreneurs to find legal help. First, the entrepreneur describes his or her legal issue in plain English. From there, we show relevant and trusted lawyers that can help with that problem. (We have a thorough screening process that each lawyer must go through before being accepted as a PlainLegal member lawyer). Next, PlainLegal provides a simple form that helps the entrepreneur further describe their legal issue to the lawyer, and once the lawyer and entrepreneur have agreed to work together, we provide access to simple workflow tools that increase efficiency and transparency for both sides. At the end, the entrepreneur can elect to pay the lawyer through PlainLegal’s platform.
I wish I had found you sooner because I remember when my friend and I were at Starbucks filling out our 501(c)3, to start a small NGO, and thinking to ourselves that it would take the whole summer to get through it (and it did). What would’ve been your recommendation for us that summer?
NM: For any new organization or company, I believe good legal advice is a requirement because it helps you establish a solid foundation for your new venture. With organizations applying for nonprofit status, the approval process for a 501(c)(3) application can take a long time, and any follow-up requests from the I.R.S. will only further delay that. This is where a lawyer who has prepared 501(c)(3) applications in the past can help you prepare a complete application that would require minimal or no follow-ups.
In your particular case, because it’s a nonprofit organization, I would have suggested working with a lawyer who would have helped on a pro bono basis until your organization reached scale. All lawyers are encouraged to provide at least 50 hours of pro bono service each year. PlainLegal would have been able to connect you with a lawyer for pro bono help as well as find you a lawyer to advise once your organization became larger.
Translating “legalese” into plain English is, I think, a unique value proposition unto itself but your company will turn this into actionable steps/recommendations. Can you share a little more insight behind that?
NM: Having founded two start-ups (one of which was before I became a lawyer), I know that legal issues can be difficult to navigate. That’s why we have designed the process to be as simple as possible and actively avoid legalese on PlainLegal. We also have several things in the works that will make the process even better. PlainLegal reinforces this through its strict selection process for lawyers. In fact, one of our core criteria for member lawyers is that they are able to communicate complex legal issues and problems into clear, actionable steps.
What’s the hardest part in running your own business?
NM: The hardest part for me has been focusing on perfecting a few details at one time. As the founder, it’s hard not to want all of our plans immediately executed, but I’ve learned (painfully) that strict focus on getting just a few details right is a much more effective path.
What would be the best advice you can lend to an up-and-coming entrepreneur?
NM: Remember that your startup begins much earlier than the day you formally start your business. That means you can do things to start your company today like working in a relevant industry, meeting with potential customers, thought leaders, and other entrepreneurs, and learning more about the problem you’re going to solve.
For me, having founded a startup before and having worked as a lawyer, I saw the problems from both sides and was able to start thinking about how to solve the pain points before starting PlainLegal. I also set up as many coffee meetings as I could before I left Kirkland & Ellis to better understand the problems and connect with individuals who would be able to help PlainLegal achieve its mission. Charlie O’Donnell recently wrote a great post about this from an investor’s perspective.
How have you sourced legal expertise for your company? Tell us about it in the
comments section below or contact Early Growth Financial Services to expand your startup ecosystem.
Nehal Madhani is the founder of Plainlegal. Nehal previously practiced as a restructuring lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis, LLP, where he advised investors and multi-billion dollar companies in bankruptcy cases. He is also co-organizer of Django-NYC, an organization with over 1,400 software developers.
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