Within the last decade, web and mobile legal apps have become an increasingly integral part of the legal profession. Now, there are apps for seemingly every aspect of the legal world.
Some law firms have built software tools to help make life easier for their clients, such as creating a one-stop location for paying bills or a mobile-friendly client intake process. Others have created guided interviews to aid with specific aspects of the legal process, for example, helping with consumer legal needs or easing corporate compliance burdens.
Whether it’s an AmLaw100, a solo practitioner, or a nonprofit that provides legal services to the public, the legal profession is trending to become more receptive to the everyday use of apps for two key reasons: Lawyers want to collaborate with their clients online, and lawyers are looking for new ways to deliver legal services outside of the traditional billable hour.
And though it may seem daunting, with all the tools that exist, creating an effective legal app is actually a relatively straightforward process and can be a game-changer for your practice.
For those thinking about building a client-facing tool, such as a guided interview, Moore’s law tells us that it gets easier every year. Do you need a background in computer science and coding? No. Anyone can build an app using no-code tools—and below are tips on how to get started.
Think Big but Start Small: Scoping Your Legal App
Start by properly scoping your idea. Step back and think: (1) who is my target audience, and (2) what is the minimum viable product (MVP) I can build to bring them value. As long as the area of law is rules-based, you can build an expert system.
A lawyer myself, before I developed Documate, I represented domestic violence survivors pro bono, but much of the initial work involved filling out template documents. I thought that if there was a way I could automate this task, it would free up my time to work on more pressing matters, like preparing the client for a hearing or drafting motions. So I built a legal app for domestic violence survivors, which is how Documate ultimately came to be—a solution for lawyers to build their own (without hiring a software developer like I did).
By starting small, you’ll get something into your users’ hands immediately to start testing the viability of the idea. But you’ll also learn from their feedback earlier in the process. It’s much better to build a California tool and apply your learnings as you expand into all 50 states than to realize after you’ve built a tool for all 50 states that something needs to change.
Build Your MVP, Test, Iterate Quickly
Once you have your idea, the next step is creating the MVP, and launching it for your beta users.
These days, there are a number of platforms online that allow you to build an app, depending on what you’re looking for. There are website-builders like Webflow and mobile app builders for creating Android or iOS-compatible apps through a simple DIY process, allowing you to customize everything, from what information users can input to visuals and plug-ins.
Documate’s goal was to replace a software developer, so you can drag, drop, and build a full-fledged legal technology tool.
First, you’ll create a series of questions that you want to display to the end user (the client-facing questionnaire). Here, you can add branching logic to determine when certain questions should or should not appear.
Then, you’ll tag (connect) the documents you want generated at the end of the process, adding conditional logic to clauses and automating calculations, among other customizations.
Now, you’re ready to launch. Depending on where you are on the spectrum of legal tech entrepreneur, you can share it directly with clients, place it on your firm’s website, or white label and add a paywall as part of a full legal tech solution (your own “TurboTax for law”). Get feedback from your early adopters, who will love being part of the process. Their unfiltered feedback will mold your product.
A legal web app can have a tremendous impact on an organization, increasing efficiency, accuracy, and client satisfaction. From a pure document automation perspective, lawyers report saving 80% to 90% of the time they spent on routine documents.
More importantly, they can scale their practices through recurring revenue, building legal tools that they charge for in new ways: flat fees, subscription platforms, and unbundled services. These new pricing models expand the pool of potential clients, allowing attorneys to serve clients who were either DIY-inclined, or could not afford the traditional hourly rate for bespoke work.
For the legal profession, one thing is clear: apps are here to stay. Like the well-known Apple slogan, “There’s an app for that,” this seems to ring true for the legal community.
Dorna Moini is the CEO of Documate, a no-code platform for creating document automation and client-facing legal tools. Prior to Documate, She was a litigator at Sidley Austin. She also teaches the Legal Innovations Lab at USC Gould School of Law.