The Unlikely LegalTech Founder: No JD, No Tech, No Problem

Nikhil Nirmel

Nikhil Nirmel is the founder and CEO of Lawdingo, an online service that connects people to a lawyer nearly instantly. Nikhil believes that whenever work can be done remotely, it should be so, and he applies that philosophy to both his company’s product and to the organization of people who build it. Often noted for his unlikely status as a legal technology startup founder, Nikhil can’t code, has no co-founders, and still knows next to nothing about the law. Nikhil is a graduate of Penn’s Wharton School, is an alumnus of Y Combinator, previously led data analysis at Yelp, and was named among the top 30 under 30 in Law & Policy by Forbes for Lawdingo’s innovations in making independent lawyers accessible to the masses.


 

LI: Why LegalTech? As a solo, non-technical, non-lawyer founder of a LegalTech company, the million dollar question is why? Why LegalTech? Why Lawdingo?

NN: I wish I had a great story like the idea struck me on my fourth night in solitary confinement, being denied access to food, water, and most importantly, legal representation. The reality is I knew a thing or two about how normal people find local businesses though my work at Yelp and I learned some things about how independent professionals find new clients online from my work at Yodle. That experience combined with a couple painful experiences trying to get some basic legal services led me to believe that if I created a button people could press to get the right kind of lawyer instantly, people who wouldn’t otherwise bother with getting a lawyer would actually get one, and it could become a real source of business for lawyers too.

So far, I quite enjoy the legal space, because the playing field is pretty open as not a lot of entrepreneurs go after it, and I think there’s a real opportunity for an outsider business nerd like me to rethink the nature of communication, transactions and technology in a traditionally insular industry like law.

LI: You got into Y Combinator with Lawdingo. Tell us about that experience.

NN: YC took a chance on Lawdingo as a consumer-facing legal tech company, when virtually no other seed investor would. So I’m grateful for that, as they helped put Lawdingo on the map.

The program itself was a whirlwind. I went from working alone in a coffee-shop for a year to being surrounded with the smartest people I’ve ever met, nonstop talking about how we could make our companies better. I wouldn’t say that Y Combinator gave me any exceptional insight into how I should build my particular business, but it gave me a peer group of tech entrepreneurs to whom I feel a sort of loyalty to build a successful company, and it gave me a hundred subtle lessons about how to think about growing a technology company.

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LI: You’ve leveraged a remote workforce to build Lawdingo. What have been the upsides and downsides for you with that approach?
 

NN: I think the idea that a company should all work in the same office is nonsense, and probably an unfortunate relic of the assembly line days when people literally needed to work in the same room to get anything done. All the work that needs to be done for a startup can be converted into bits and transmitted over wires, so why force everyone to show up at an office? If you put in the time to find the best value people in the whole world for your company, you’ll go further with limited resources. For engineers, you have to try out a lot of them before you find a few that work out exceptionally well. For company processes that require humans but can be narrowly defined,  such as operational roles, support, even sales, there is no reason to pay people in America living wages for it, when you can pay competent people in the Philippines $4/hr for the same work.Some specific upsides are lower cost, more flexibility, greater access to talent wherever it may reside, no need to get buy-in from the whole team to make a decision, no office politics, and more independence as a founder.

Downsides would include investor wariness, language and cultural differences, communication needs to be explicit, and less can be left to others’ discretion or interpretation.

LI: With a degree from Wharton, I assume you had lots of career paths. Why take the start-up path?

Not entirely true. Being smitten with the start-up path in college too, I wasn’t good at feigning interest in big companies, and was politely rejected from just about every corporate job I applied for.

But as for why startups, I just think it’s intoxicatingly appealing that you as a single person can conceive a potentially huge idea, which will inevitably be the wrong idea, start building bit after bit of it, face one devastating blow after the next, and if on some crazy off chance you make it past those, you could serve orders of magnitude more people than you could ever even shake hands with if hand-shaking were your full-time job.

LI: What advice can you offer to other would-be founders who are interested in building a LegalTech startup?

NN: Well, I do see a lot of entrepreneurs in LegalTech being ex-lawyers. I would advise any lawyer starting a startup to not worry so much about the legal aspects of the business. That’s not what’s hard or important. So put the NDA down and get to work. What I think lawyers are particularly good at, as it relates to legal startups, is identifying processes that a lot of legal professional do, finding a way to automate that process, and building a company around that.

I’d also say that figuring out a reliable customer acquisition channel and a workable business model is half the battle, whatever your product is. Marketing to both consumers and practitioners of legal services is expensive or time consuming. And with a good number of regulations and practical complexities on how and who you can charge, a workable business model isn’t always a given.

Finally, get ideas from companies in other spaces. Legal isn’t so different from medicine or real estate or accounting, or heck, ride-sharing, when you look at the economics of the industries. Legal is it’s own beast to be sure, but much of what you need to do in building a product and company of a certain type isn’t going to be that different from what companies of a similar type in another markets had to do too.

About Michele Collu

Michele Collu joined the Law Insider team as Managing Editor in 2014. Based in San Francisco, Michele is passionate about legal tech and the evolving landscape of the legal profession. Michele received his LL.M. from Berkeley School of Law (Boalt) with a Certificate of Specialization in Law & Technology. He received his J.D. from Università Commerciale ‘Luigi Bocconi’, in Milan, Italy, where he graduated Magna Cum Laude.

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