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Building an Automated Legal Toolbox with Sonja Ebron + Debra Slone of Courtroom5

“The vast majority of people who need us have never heard of us, or don’t know anything like this exists. And so our biggest challenge is finding them and making them aware there is a solution.”

Sonja Ebron, Courtroom5

In this episode

Join Sonja Ebron + Debra Slone of SheEO Venture Courtroom5 in the latest episode of the SheEO.World podcast. They chat with SheEO founder Vicki Saunders about how their automated legal toolbox has the potential to help millions of people in civil court, and some of the challenges they’ve faced along the way.

Courtroom5 is currently fundraising for their angel round, which will close at the end of this month. #ASK: Consider investing so that Courtroom5 can continue to grow, build, + meet the needs in this market.

They also discuss:

  • How their respective backgrounds in academia as a librarian and an electrical engineer led them here
  • Their lived experiences living with the civil justice system
  • A story of one of the most impactful cases they’ve worked on
  • How they can reach people that need this solution the most and make them aware
  • An overview of how Courtroom5 works, and how they work with lawyers throughout the process

We invite you to join us as an Activator at SheEO.World.

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Podcast Transcript:

The podcast is being transcribed by Otter.ai. (there may be errors, run-on sentences and misspellings).

Sonja Ebron 0:00
The vast majority of people who need us have never heard of us or don’t know anything like this exists. And so our biggest challenge is finding them and making them aware there is a solution.

Welcome to the SheEO.World podcast, where you will meet women who are transforming the world to be more equitable and sustainable. Your host for today’s podcast is the founder of SheEO, Vicki Saunders. Welcome to SheEO.World.

Vicki Saunders 0:28
Welcome today, Debra and Sonja. So good to have you.

Debra Slone 0:30
Good to be here.

Sonja Ebron 0:33
Thank you so much, Vicki,

Vicki Saunders 0:34
So excited about your Venture. And we can’t wait to introduce you to the larger SheEO community and all the people that listen to this podcast. So I don’t know who wants to start by telling us first of all, I’ll just start Sonja. Tell us who you are, and where this idea came from. And then Debra we’ll have you introduce right after.

Sonja Ebron 0:53
Absolutely. So I’m Sonia Ebron. I’m the Chief Executive at Courtroom5. I am a native of Durham, North Carolina, company’s headquarters. I’m a PhD electrical engineer. My background is in utilities, energy utilities, and artificial intelligence. But the company is in the legal space. I have no legal background at all other than having been in court having to deal with lawyers on my own. So that’s sort of the genesis for what we’re doing at Courtroom5.

Vicki Saunders 1:21
Great and Debra?

Debra Slone 1:23
my name is Debra Slone, I’m the Chief Product officer at Courtroom5. And I’m, I always say I’m a librarian at heart and I’ve been a librarian for 10 years, I taught it for 10 years. And I have a passion for content because of that librarian background. So for me, Courtroom5, fills a void in, in my own wanting to know what people need, and how they go about looking for information and how they use that information. And in getting that information to them. So Courtroom5 is—I just love being able being a part of Courtroom5.

Vicki Saunders 2:07
Awesome. So before we go any further, what is Courtroom5?

Sonja Ebron 2:14
Courtroom5 is an automated legal toolbox for people handling complex civil cases on their own, that is, without a lawyer. It’s not Judge Judy’s court. These aren’t traffic cases or small claims court. We’ve got folks handling medical malpractice claims, personal injury claims their foreclosures, it’s across the board. And oftentimes there’s a lawyer on the other side ready to deny them an opportunity to be heard fair, like in court. And so Courtroom5 is just an effort to level the playing field so that you can get a fair day in court whether you have a lawyer or not.

Vicki Saunders 2:50
And is this a big problem?

Sonja Ebron 2:52
This is a huge problem. There are estimated 30 million people a year representing themselves in civil court. And it is, you know, I mentioned some of the claim types, but it’s really across the board. When you think about, you know, there are 4 million debt collection cases alone in the United States. And oftentimes, these are for reasonably small amounts that also qualify for small claims court. But the debt collection bar has decided to take people in these cases to real court where they can use all sorts of technical procedures to deny people the ability to be heard. Millions of divorces, I mean, foreclosures, we’re seeing a lot more of those now. Contested bankruptcies, you name it, it’s really across the board. Millions of people every day are at risk of losing their kids or, you know, having their homes foreclosed just because they can’t get a lawyer. And so that’s the problem we’re solving.

Debra Slone 3:50
One one type of, there are some cases that we don’t handle. And those are cases that are less complex, like small claims, cases, evictions and traffic ticket but but mostly because there’s Courtroom5 is really based on writing litigation documents, going into court appearing in court getting a judgment and going back and do it again. And we just don’t have the time to do small claims because it’s just one day or traffic ticket because it’s typically one court visit. And so there are some cases that we can’t handle, but for the vast majority of complex cases that people are trying to fight on their own in court. Hey, we got that.

Vicki Saunders 4:38
That’s amazing. Okay, so and this is like also one of my favorite things about a lot of the ventures that get selected into this incredible community at SheEO. So how does a librarian-at-heart at a PhD in electrical engineering and AI create like a legal toolbox? What? How did that happen?

Sonja Ebron 4:56
No, it’s interesting. We were talking today about why, you know, no one has done this before. It’s such a huge market, obviously willing to pay for a solution to these these these terrible problems. Why is no one done this before? And we started thinking about it, you know, first of all, you have to have the legal knowledge. And unfortunately, Debra and I have had to be in court, dealing with lawyers, we’ve had experiences, like those I mentioned, where we’ve had to fight a lawyer and learn the hard way, in many cases, how to navigate the civil justice system, but you have to have the legal knowledge. Secondly, though, most importantly, you have to not be a lawyer. Unfortunately, lawyers have been trained to advocate for people. And I think there’s a psychological barrier, frankly, when they go to try to help people advocate for themselves. And so it’s that interesting combination of having the legal knowledge, which Debra and I do, and not being lawyers. And thirdly, both of us have spent time in academia. So we’ve seen the power of the right information at the right time, turn it into something that helps a person to be able to do something they weren’t able to do before. Right. So it’s that it’s that magical combination, I think that, you know, has enabled us to do this, where, you know, you couldn’t find that combination elsewhere.

Vicki Saunders 6:17
Yeah, that’s, that’s so interesting, because oftentimes, people think in order to innovate, you have to actually, like, be deeply in these things. And I, I have like an amazing imagination for how to use finance. And I hate finance, like, Yeah, but it makes me crazy. All the rules make me crazy. I think they’re just like, they just don’t make sense. But having been a recipient of all these things, so being in court seeing these things, that’s where I came up with innovation. So yeah, there’s there’s a bit of a theme here sometimes around us solving the challenges that we face in front of us and having that fresh perspective.

Sonja Ebron 6:52
That’s right. That’s right. Exactly.

Vicki Saunders 6:54
So do you have a favorite story? This is why we are here. This story is like exactly us. Do you have one of those from recently?

Debra Slone 7:04
I love the way you tell the story about the 20 minutes.

Sonja Ebron 7:09
Oh, my goodness, yeah. We had a, we had a case, a years and years ago, Debra, and I. By the way, Debra and I have known each other for 23 years, or 24 years or so we’ve been married for 20 years here. So many of the cases that we’ve had have actually, unfortunately been together. We’ve had to deal with these situations together. But I’m so Debra, Debra, and I had a case where we lost and we appealed it right, we took it to the appellate court because we thought it was so unfair. And the lawyers on the other side knew of a rule where in that particular type of case, we didn’t have a right to appeal after a seven day time limit. So generally, when you go to appeal an order, you have 30 days to file a brief and the appellate court, in this particular type of case, we only had seven days according to the law. Right. And so we got an order from the appellate court saying we’re not going to hear your case, because you’re past that seven day deadline. And we got that, and we were devastated because we knew we were in the right. And, you know, we read it. And I told Debra, look, we just get we need to give up. We were not going to make this there’s nothing else we can say. We need an order that says that seven day limit doesn’t apply to us. Right? It was a matter of property and possession of property involved. And she said you know what? Give me 20 minutes. All right, I’m going to find something for us. This is this is a PhD librarian we’re talking about here, she had the confidence to know that out of 240 years of case law, she’d be able to find something to counteract what these appellate court judges had ordered. I went and took a nap at that point, because I knew she wasn’t gonna find no way. Absolutely no way. I got up three hours later, went to the bathroom, which I do, and I wake up, right. She knocks on the door. And I said what, she says I’ve got it. Okay. And sure enough, she found the one case in the history of humanity. All right, that was able to counter what we just said it was a 50 year old case, probably hidden in the archives somewhere. All right. I don’t know how she found it. We wrote up a simple one page response to this and said you need to reconsider that because we’ve got case law that says you’re wrong. Sure enough, they did. They overturn their own decision and said, You know, we’re wrong. You had plenty of time. We’re going to hear your case. And sure enough, they did. So this is what a PhD librarian brings to what we’re doing. This is the reason Deborah is the chief Chief Product officer.

Vicki Saunders 9:51
Because there’s so much research in law right? You have to go back find it.

Yes.

What is the hardest part of doing what you’re doing? What is the real struggle with us?

Sonja Ebron 10:02
Yeah. Well, let me take that one too, because I think Debra’s got her own millions of challenges. But for me, as the Chief Executive, I always think back to what Henry Ford said, you know, if you’d ask people during the horse and buggy era, what they wanted in transportation, they would have said, We want a faster horses. Right. And he didn’t do that, he built something with four wheels and a steering, that four tires and a steering wheel, and just completely ignoring the customers. We have to do that every day. And this is one of the big challenges between Debra and me, she always wants to do what the customer says, I have to look at what the environment is that we’re operating. And try to go beyond that. And I think that’s one of the biggest challenges we have is to look at what customers are actually experiencing, and what we know they’re going to experience and try to build, build there rather than what they want.

Debra Slone 11:00
But probably the biggest, the hardest. One of the hardest things for me is I was a public librarian for those 10 years. And it’s really difficult for me to sell something that I feel should be free. And I’m a content person, I get all this wonderful information, and I just want to share it with everybody. And Sonja is like we need to put that behind the paywall. So that’s that, that creates a little frustration on my part, but it’s really hard. So in the years that we’ve put this company together, and and we’ve advanced with this company, it’s it’s I’m learning that, that I’m learning the money thing, and it’s that’s been quite difficult for me.

Vicki Saunders 11:52
Yeah. Well, I mean, when you see it, this is a really interesting moment in time, because we see so many in justices around us. And like there’s this constant question of should you be making money off somebody’s, you know, this unjust, like inequitable systems and the barriers and systemic structures that we have. And so there’s there’s a tension there, right?

Sonja Ebron 12:11
There is, yeah, there is, you know, and I think Debra, and I, you know, we both would give this away if we could, but we’ve got 30 million people to reach, you know, the vast majority of people who need us have never heard of us don’t know anything like this exists. And so our biggest challenge is finding them and making them aware there is a solution, you know, to what you’re experiencing, and that, unfortunately takes money.

Vicki Saunders 12:35
Yeah. So where are you right now? What’s the state of the business? And what’s coming next?

Sonja Ebron 12:40
Ah, yes. So we released our MVP in the startup language of minimum viable product. In late January, we’ve been tinkering with a lesser quality product for a good while trying to understand the problem. And the solution. We think we’ve nailed it. We released it in January, we’re building a sales engine on the front of it now that we expect to take us up into the right, as they say, very quickly. And so we’re at we’re in the middle of launch on the right on the line of being able to launch now to that larger market and start building some traction. We’re fundraising, as well. So we’ve got a an angel round, we’re hoping to close this month, and just ready to start building and meeting the need in this market.

Vicki Saunders 13:28
And are you Is there a specific geography you’re starting with?

Unknown Speaker 13:32
We are nationwide, we are the serve people in every jurisdiction and all the federal and state courts. And so yeah, what we do is good for everyone.

Vicki Saunders 13:42
So people come to you—walk me through it, I’ve got an issue. Someone’s trying to foreclose on me, what do I do?

Sonja Ebron 13:48
Yeah, you come to Courtroom5 and sign up for a free trial seven day trial, you can explore the the solution we built for you, it doesn’t work for everyone. This is truly a do it yourself solution. And so you just want to make sure that you’re going to be able to find what you need. But if you do, we ask you to give us four pieces of information. So what court Are you in claim you’re working with your foreclosure? Who are the parties in your case? Thirdly, what’s been filed, not everybody starts at the beginning. A lot of people start at the end, unfortunately of their cases. Now, what’s been filed, tell us where you are in the case. And then fourth, what are the underlying facts that got you into court in the first place, right? Again, no human being looks at any of this information. This is just for you, to help you organize the case and get properly situated. Once we get that information, our artificial intelligence, crunches the numbers, if you will, and point you to the precise information you need based on where you are and what’s happened in your case so that you can, you know, get your footing to figure out what might be good next steps for you. We then walk you through three huge steps, I don’t want to oversimplify them. There’s a lot of work here. First is the legal analysis of your case, we built tools to help you connect the legal elements, that is what must be proven in your specific case, right, we help you connect those things in the law to the facts and the evidence in your case. So you get a bird’s eye view of your case the way a judge would see it, right. And obviously, that changes throughout the progress of your case. But secondly, then we take you to our legal research tool, sort of like a Westlaw or LexisNexis. If you’ve heard of those tools that lawyers use, you then go and understand the law, based on where you are in your case right there. What might a judge be looking at and be persuaded by in the law, so we help you understand what to look for, and how to understand what you’re reading? Right? Once you’ve got that footing, we then walk you through the document that you need to file at that step. In the case, it may be a motion to dismiss the claim, it may be some evidence, you need to collect in a process called discovery, we’ve got all of those instruments there, we walk you step by step through filing the right document, with all of that information you’ve collected, and you end up with a PDF with all of the legalities on it, it’s already got your signature and you know, the court and all of that information, you can download a PDF that we’ve got following instructions for your court, if it allows electronic filing, and you go ahead and file that. And in that way, iteratively, we walk you through every step of your case from beginning to end.

Vicki Saunders 16:29
That’s amazing.

Debra Slone 16:30
It’s more of a process rather than just a just a piece of software. And there’s training embedded throughout. So there’s there’s a lot of learning involved, but we kind of take them through the process.

Vicki Saunders 16:50
This is just, I mean, there’s so much value to be unlocked in process innovation, right. And so I’m really excited about what you’re doing. Obviously, you don’t just go Oh, it’s an ABC, you push the button and write a bunch of information, right? Like a lot of the stuff in the world is like product innovation is what we noticed is the process innovation is where there’s just so much value and so much injustice.

Sonja Ebron 17:12
That’s absolutely right. That’s absolutely right. And I have to tell you, we’ve done really well, we’ve served almost 3000 people today. And you know, we’re most people in this situation in a court without a lawyer lose their cases quickly and badly. We’ve had 7 out of 10, either get a settlement that’s favorable to them, or win outright win their cases using our platform. So we’re really, really excited about that. It’s not the end of the story. Technology can take people a long way. But we really have a place as well for lawyers to serve our customers on a different way than they’re used to. So instead of taking over their entire cases, and you know, sucking their savings, dry life savings drive, we allow and encourage lawyers to serve our customers on a piecemeal basis. And it’s a different sort of relationship between a lawyer and client. We’ve got educated clients handling their own litigation, and lawyers can help them with a coaching or helping them find that right case to support their positions, maybe even ghostwriting or arguing with the judge. You know, there are lots of places for lawyers to fill in the gaps here. And so that’s our next milestone, is helping lawyers help our customers.

Vicki Saunders 18:25
That’s amazing. Well, I’m so grateful for the innovation that you’ve come up with. I think this is just a huge, huge gap, obviously, that people didn’t even see in the market, right? People don’t know. And then to to bring people along and educate them about what their rights are and how they can do this is like sounds fascinating. I hope I never have to use it. Yes. I’m really thinking to myself, I kind of make something up and figure out how to get behind the paywall and check it out. And so for those who are listening, how can they reach you?

Sonja Ebron 18:55
We are at coutroom5, that’s the number 5, dot com. There is a Contact link in the footer on every page. And so absolutely reach out to us that way.

Vicki Saunders 19:05
Great. And so for those who are in the SheEO community as Activators anyone who’s an Activator, get in there, write a check, become an investor in this company. And please spread the word to those that are looking for this kind of service is just a huge opportunity. And please amplify online and thank you so much for being with us today, you two.

Sonja Ebron 19:25
Thank you so much. Thank you. We are so grateful for SheEO and being a US Venture just made our year. Absolutely, most likely a decade. So thank you so much.

Vicki Saunders 19:34
Thank you so much.

Hannah Cree 19:38
Thank you for listening to the SheEO.World podcast. Like, comment, subscribe and share this podcast with your friends. We invite you to join a global community of radically generous women at SheEO.World.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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