Putting innovation into practice

By Yves Faguy August 4, 20134 August 2013

An interview with Michelle Crosby, founder of Wevorce, a new legal start-up that aims to change the way divorces are handled.

Putting innovation into practice

Illustration: Creative Commons: Javad Alizadeh

As a child, Michelle Crosby got caught in the middle of a bitter divorce and custody battle. When she was 9, a lawyer figured she was old enough to take the stand to answer the question: “If you were stranded on a desert island, which parent would you choose to live with?” That moment marked a turning point for Crosby, who set out to become a different kind of family lawyer.  At first she tried to be an agent of change within a traditional practice, but then turned her attention to mediation and collaborative law. Then this year, backed by Y-Combinator, one of the top seed accelerators in the U.S., she launched Wevorce, a service that aims to make divorce more amicable and less expensive.  Based in Boise, Idaho, Wevorce has opened offices in six different cities and is available online. We interviewed Crosby ahead of her presentation at the CLC in Saskatoon, as part of a panel discussion on new and novel ways of delivering legal services.

National: How does your practice differ from the traditional divorce lawyer’s practice?

Michelle Crosby: Well first, rather than being adversarial in nature we’re really settlement-focused. We say that we are not pro-divorce; we are pro-family. We understand that when it comes to a family transitioning from one household to two, there are legal implications. But we also work with counsellors that help address the emotional needs of the family with respect to communication, co-parenting and all of the relationship dynamics [involved]. Then lastly, we address all the financial concerns of the family. So that’s much more multidimensional than what’s generally addressed in the adversarial system of treating family dynamics like a legal problem.

The other unique aspect is that we’ve added technology to the mix... We’re not using technology to replace the humans and the lawyers and the mediators. We’re using them to make us more efficient so that we have more time to spend with the family. In beta testing we found that our software platform is saving attorneys 60 per cent of their time spent with a case and paper. That gives them more time to spend with the clients and also makes us more affordable because there’s not a lot of paper-chasing. And so we work in upfront pricing; we’ve scrapped the billable hour… Who wants to live their life in six-minute billables?

Michelle Crosby, founder, Wevorce

N: What did you learn about implementing change in a law practice?  What kind of obstacles did you have to overcome?

MC: It has been a bit of an uphill battle convincing [the law profession] as an institution to evolve, to try new things, to really start shifting to meet the clients’ expectations rather than answer our own fears and needs as professionals. But what we have found is that, individually, attorneys are really quite receptive. I mean, most of us know the frightening statistics out there for lawyers. We have the highest rate of depression, alcoholism and drug abuse of any profession out there and divorce lawyers are probably leading a lot of that… And it’s not always easy to assume the role of advocate [in an adversarial practice]. We’re really asking lawyers to reframe how they look at problems and cultivate conversations of resolution as opposed to adversarial debates.

N: You’ve received some nurturing from a start-up incubator – something unusual for a legal practice.  

MC: Yes. We went to Y Combinator.  It’s the world’s largest leading start-up incubator. It’s led by a man by the name of Paul Graham who has been doing it for about almost 10 years now. It’s gotten so competitive that in the class we applied for, there were 2,600 applicants. We were one of 46 that were accepted and when you get into Y Combinator, it is generally very focused in technology. We were way outside of the box of what you generally see as a Y Combinator company… We as lawyers tend to be almost averse to technology and so…they saw a wide open [market]. They were curious about how we could use technology to work with families. Y Combinator uses a lot of their companies to improve the world, and they like disrupting stale industries. ... They’re also business-minded and so they were also looking at the size of the divorce market and in the United States alone it’s a $30-billion market so they were curious about following that stream of technology into that market. I jokingly but seriously say that that 10-minute interview [to get accepted into Y Combinator] was more intense than the three bar exams that I’ve sat for. …  We had to articulate a vision of how we wanted to improve an existing system notorious for not wanting to change and how were going to make a run at convincing lawyers to do it a different way.

N:  What could lawyers learn from that experience?  

MC:  Well a lot of it is getting over your fear of failure. ... I mean, lawyers spend a lot of time in school learning answers and, in reality, there are very few absolutes and it does become paralyzing for a lot of practitioners. We get stuck… doing what we’ve always done. ... And so I did learn at Y Combinator to get pretty comfortable in failure as part of [learning]… One of the things we found at Y Combinator was this amazing group of people that are very comfortable in overcoming obstacles and failure. And so even when you stumble, you have somebody behind you going “yeah that’s just part of it, get up, go again, don’t let that be the end, it’s just part of the process.” Lawyers aren’t great at building that kind of community. Mistakes, although part of daily life, are kept kind of in quiet, in confidence…

N: Do you expect more practices will follow a similar path as yours – joining incubators, seeking inspiration from the tech community?

MC: It is a trend. In the class that followed us at Y Combinator, there are two other companies focused on legal disruption. It’s an institution that’s ripe for a disruption. It’s become so expensive, so out of reach and yet … and I can’t speak exactly to the Canadian system but ours is supposed to be a system of justice for all and the legal system has become how much justice can you afford and I actually think technology is going to be the roadmap for making the law accessible again to everybody.

National:  You used to describe yourself as a lawyer, then later in your career, as a family architect. How do you describe yourself now?

MC: You know, my role in life is that of an entrepreneur, being a change agent and finding a lot of comfort and support in the community of entrepreneurs here Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurs generally are the visionaries that see the world in a different way and lead the path for others to follow.  A lot of my passion comes from a time where I was 9-years old and could see that the existing system was broken. So for me this is a lifelong journey of finally getting to a point and finding a community that will help me to start fixing it and start a new conversation. As an entrepreneur, I envision that this is just the beginning.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

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