Stevie Ghiassi: Crying into beer and blockchain for good

Stevie Ghiassi is CEO of Legaler, a secure online communication and collaboration tool for lawyers which allows firms to schedule, host and archive online meetings in one place.

Stevie is also CEO of Legaler Aid, which plans to incentivise lawyers to participate in pro bono work through a rewards token, as well as facilitate transparent crowdfunding for social justice cases. Legaler will be launching its own cryptocurrency through an ICO (Initial Coin Offering) later this year.

Technomancers caught up with Stevie at ILTACON to find out more.

How long have you been working on Legaler?

It was 2016 when we started getting things of the ground, with the vision that one day, a technology company would become the largest provider of legal services. We realised early on that the legal industry had a slow rate of adoption traditionally, so we wanted something that could come to the market, land and expand, and we saw an opportunity to connect lawyers and clients via in-browser video to help them save time.

That was our first foray into the market, we launched it publicly in April 2017 and we now have a global presence across over 80 countries in over 1000 law firms. Most of the growth has been organic, with some help from content marketing and our presence at events.

Where does Legaler sit within the legal landscape of the future?

If you take examples from other industries, you can see a common trend where the technology layer has become the common denominator. You see that meme: Facebook the world’s largest media company doesn’t have any content, Uber the world’s largest transportation company doesn’t own any cars. Legal will be no different.

So we asked ourselves, what would that look for the future of legal services? An industry which has been dominated by traditional law firms and has been slow to move online. Look at LegalZoom, which just raised  $500m investment on a $2billion valuation, with an IPO imminent.

You can see where things are heading, lots of commoditization, with transactional work in particular becoming the first to be disrupted. We see an opportunity for a technology infrastructure where people are able to deliver legal services in more efficient ways.

We also see a shift from online platforms with intermediaries to peer to peer transactions. Look at how Bitcoin is disrupting banks by taking out the middleman. It is now possible to apply this same technology to transact in a trusted manner, with far greater cost efficiencies.

Using blockchain technology and new innovations such as self-sovereign identity and automated dispute resolution using smart contracts, you are able to significantly reduce transactions costs. Platforms like Rocket Lawyer and Upcounsel are connecting people together and taking a 20% cut. This can now be done twenty times cheaper.

We see Legaler as the underlying infrastructure that will connect lawyers and clients globally – an opportunity to go past the boundaries that restrict typical law firms.

What’s next for Legaler?

Our focus is on developing the various building blocks that will allow businesses and developers to easily build scalable and secure decentralised applications for the legal industry.

We’re currently focused on what you could call a sidechain infrastructure to Ethereum, designed specifically for the legal industry, that will allow far greater scalability and cost-savings than existing solutions. This is a fundamental technology layer for the ecosystem we are building.

There are some great projects like Integra Ledger, OpenLaw and Clause, and we want to make sure we are as interoperable as possible, ensuring this new ecosystem works well together. It’s all very new.

Right now we’re also working on Legaler ID  – a self-sovereign identity solution that becomes the single source of truth for both lawyer and client identities, including digitally issued university credentials and client KYC.

And one project I’ve seen you speak passionately about that will make use of the blockchain is Legaler Aid – can you tell us more about that?

We are passionate about bringing Legaler Aid to life with the technology we are building.

Legaler Aid is a decentralised and self-sustaining legal charity that connects disadvantaged clients with lawyers that want to do pro bono work through community legal centres.

The legal centres will be vetting people as they walk in off the street and if they pass a means and merits test they will be able to use Legaler Aid as a technology layer for connecting them with a lawyer.

Sounds like a great initiative – where did they idea come from?

I was initially inspired by one of the companies using Legaler’s communication tool – Salvos Legal, a law firm in Australia established by the Salvation Army.

As I got to know their business model more it was really intriguing because one law firm, possibly the world’s first social enterprise law firm, had raised over $50-60m in profit and all of that went directly to a not-for-profit law firm under a single umbrella which helped disadvantaged people coming in off the street, a lot of times without any possessions, and if they passed a means and merits test they were rendered free legal services.

I saw that and thought, given the massive access to justice issue, what if we could use technology to scale that service to reach more people – you know, like Tom’s Shoes – they put a pair of shoes on someone’s feet in Africa if you buy a pair of shoes in a developed country.

So that was part of the inspiration and also I’d been exploring technology like DAOs where you could bring about transparency in the community in terms of resources and profits – I had a bit of an “Aha!” moment when the two worlds collided.

I saw that the best use case of that technology would be a charity because you want transparency, you don’t want a hierarchy, you want a really flat organization, and you could be really transparent, and I think charities are the best use case because you want to see where the value transfers.

How does crowdfunding fit into this?

So combining those two elements, what if you could crowdfund a social justice case and you could see exactly where everything goes. So what we’ve landed on is a part of Legaler Aid where you’re giving back and can see the impact of all the stakeholders which is not really possible in traditional crowdfunding platforms – you don’t see where the money goes afterwards.

We wanted to bring everything onto the blockchain, so the work is actually rendered on the platform, so you can see what the lawyer’s done, how much money has been raised and see the impact on the client’s life and what was the outcome of the case or what was the journey.

Similar to a kickstarter when you buy something early on, and as a donor you’re more likely to give if you can see where your money is going and having a real impact.

What’s the benefit to lawyers?

As part of their Legaler ID, lawyers will also clock up the pro bono work they do. It’s tokenised so you can see exactly what cases they did and what work has been rendered, and how they earnt those points, bringing more recognition and accountability to what the lawyer is doing.

The lawyers get a reward for helping people, as part of our underlying token technology.

What are the benefits to benefactors?

Legaler Aid as an entity will be the most transparent of its type. We want to make our expenses transparent, where the funds are going, and create a new type of standard for organisations that are doing philanthropic work.

Sounds really good, excited to see what happens with that. And you’ve got an Initial Coin Offering coming up, is that right?

Yep, we’re following the market and the market’s going through a bit of a rough time – but it’s only grown right? So we see things picking up end of this year and early next year.

We’re not in a rush – we’ve just completed a seed round so want to make sure we’re delivering on the product and building our community and getting those early use cases.

The initial product we’re working on right now is Legaler ID, which is a self-sovereign identity solution. So before the token sale we want to have that up and running.

We’re working with technology that MIT’s developed, doing some pilot programmes with the law societies and places like Stanford to make sure we can actually have technology out in the market before our token sale. But the latest will probably be Q1 of next year.

You’re also president of ALTA, the Australian Legal Tech Association?

Yeah, we’ve been on a journey ourselves as a start-up, we have been in this industry for a little while. We came at a time where the industry has been in a real state of flux, things are consolidating and legaltech’s becoming more mature.

So we’ve experienced both sides of it, where we were in the dark a little bit and trying to find our way, trying to get in front of VCs and in front of customers, and we found there were others similar to us.

In Australia there was no formal organisation that was looking after start-ups and providing a way to collaborate locally, on a global scale, connect with funding and talk about what’s working and what’s not working.

Initially it was an organic thing, a bunch of Sydney and Melbourne founders coming together and having some drinks, crying in our beers about how hard start-up life was and we saw that everyone was experiencing the same issues, and it would be worthwhile making sure there was a beacon for the legaltech industry in Australia.

ALTA was very organic, it got a lot of momentum earlier in the year when Macquarie Bank came onboard as a founding partner and they hosted a demo day which really set the tone for the organisation because there were sixteen startups on one stage showing their wares and there was a Q&A afterwards and we found that format was really successful and got a lot of bums on seats.

We had a great turnout from across the industry including CIOs, law students, technology buyers – they could just have a 2 hour smorgasbord of legaltech and see what’s out there in the market and we got some really great traction from that and it had a knock on effect.

There’s been lots of events since that and it’s been a great opportunity for start ups to get seen and get feedback from the audience and who knows, there might be an ALTACON in the future and there’s talk of doing something where the focus is on getting your hands dirty with technology, in a sandbox environment, being able to see more demos, really hands-on and the focus is on the actual startups.

It’s been great for the Australian legaltech scene and hopefully it’s been helpful for the younger startups – we’ve seen a lot of startups come through these hackathons recently, some of them still attending university, it’s been a great ecosystem to foster innovation and help those guys get exposed to the mistakes we’ve made and the things we’re learning and introductions.  

There’s a real family feel coming about and I think that’s really good. There’s some great projects coming up and some really inspiring young founders like Tessa Ramanlal of Herbert Smith Freehills who’s here at ILTACON on a rising star scholarship.

Tessa’s from ANIKA – they got to the finals of the Global Legal Hackathon recently in New York and I was fortunate to mentor them a little bit through that, and seeing the experience they’re having here at ILTACON is pretty nice to see.

Is the legaltech scene in Australia primarily just in Sydney at the moment or have you got some other pockets?

Yeah most of us are in Sydney and Melbourne but there’s quite a few popping up in Perth and Adelaide.

Adrian Cartland of Cartland Law, who are based in Adelaide created Ailira – an AI platform that is also powering the world’s first law firm without a lawyer, so there’s interesting developments all around the country.

In October there will be a demo day in Brisbane but we’re also doing Adelaide and Perth so we’re trying to spread the love!

It’s a long way from the West Coast to the East Coast of Australia, it’s almost like travelling across the whole of the United States so we’re trying to make sure we’ve got virtual meetups.

There’s a bunch of things we do around the actual demo days and online and communication, we have video meetings in Legaler and all that kind of stuff – that’s mandated! It’s a fun community to be a part of!

We hope to see Stevie again soon, perhaps at ALTACON… watch this space!

Also published on Medium.

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