Until recently, Laura Keily was a full-time barrister with 20 years of legal experience under her belt and a future in silks ahead of her. But, in this super-traditional profession, so steeped in history and ceremony, there were problems she couldn’t ignore.
While she’s still working as a barrister, Keily has now pivoted to the very different role of startup founder and chief, launching legaltech Immediation.
The platform takes legal disputes online, offering an alternative way for small businesses and consumers to reach resolution without having to set foot in a courtroom.
“I just found that it was basically impossible for anyone to navigate the court system unless they were an ASX-listed company or had enormous resources,” Keily tells StartupSmart.
Disputes are typically expensive and time-consuming, she says.
The startup offers a mediation service, helping the parties to come to a commercial solution.
“Disputes are part of life,” Keily explains. Sometimes “you need to cut a deal and find a way out of it”.
It provides legal experts to help clients remotely, and chat functions that allow for both group discussions and private chats, and once all parties agree to an outcome, that agreement is binding.
Alternatively, users can go down an arbitration route. This way, they will essentially have a private judge who hears the arguments of both parties and hands down a decision. Again, that decision is binding.
“It just makes that process way more accessible to an average business or consumer,” she adds. “People can do it from their desk.”
In Keily’s experience, small businesses tend to shy away from even attempting to take legal action, because they feel the process, and the costs involved, are prohibitive.
“The first thing we tell anybody who comes to us who wants to bring a claim is ‘don’t do it’,” she says.
“It’s too expensive, it’s too risky, and the likelihood is that you will waste more money than you have in the claim on prosecuting this matter.”
Clients often feel that, if they’re in the right, justice will be done, she says.
Actually, what usually happens is they start the process and change their mind halfway through. By that point, they have spent too much money to get out of it, as has the opposing side.
And then, “no-one is prepared to cut a cheque” to settle.
For Keily, as a barrister, this was more than frustrating.
“It was keeping me awake up at night,” she says.
“There are certainly a vast number of businesses and consumers who have claims that are just not dealt with properly, because either they know, or they’ve been told, or they’ve found out, that it’s too prohibitive.”
Nobody is above disruption
Disruption in the legal industry is “essential”, Keily says.
“If it doesn’t happen, the legal profession probably won’t survive in its current form.
“That knowledge imbalance that lawyers and all professionals have always relied on in order to make themselves relevant and useful is disappearing, and a lot of the work is being automated,” she explains.
“If they don’t roll with the technology and use it to improve their service to clients … it’s just going to fall away and we’re going to be left with a skeleton of what we currently have.”
Having said that, she notes tackling mediation with tech is different from tackling other aspects of the law.
Rather than just trying to speed up a process, Immediation is providing a new framework for providing this service, that hasn’t happened before.
Dealing with claims within a whole separate ecosystem is “quite a big step”, she notes. “It’s quite an ambitious project.”
And, while there are always going to be people who are resistant to change — especially in a profession so set in its ways — there are senior people in the industry, including former judges, former chief justices, leading law firms and top arbitrators and QCs, who have said platforms like this are desperately needed, Keily says.
“Yes, it’s steeped in tradition. Yes, there are a lot of people who say we don’t need to change the legal profession, and will never need to change it. But there are equally enough people who realise that the clients need something more,” she explains.
“The profession needs to innovate in order to remain relevant and survive.”
A large part of this is the fact the legal profession is almost elitist. Part of Keily’s mission is to make justice more democratised, and more accessible to the masses.
It shouldn’t be only the large businesses that can afford to take their disputes to the courtroom.“We’re all working under the rule of law.”
In a democratic system, people of all walks of life should be able to resolve their disputes in a court system.
“If nobody can access that system, then that rule of law is undermined. And ultimately, that’s not sustainable.”
Dispute resolution through the court system is simply not sustainable, Keily argues. Everybody gets what she calls “the Rolls-Royce treatment”, having their case heard in the historic court building, with multiple lawyers on both sides, and judges presiding.
“It just can’t cope with the volume, and that’s why it’s so expensive now.”
We need alternative systems for those cases that could be dealt with quickly, or commercially, “so that the court process is there to be accessed more readily by the people who actually need it”.
If not you, then who?
Making the leap from a high-flying career in the law to becoming a startup founder was “entirely accidental” for Keily. But, while she’s still a practising barrister now, she plans to go full-time with Immediation one day soon.
“I didn’t wake up one day and say ‘I want to be a tech entrepreneur’,” she says.
But, she saw a problem that needed to be solved, and had an idea as to what could be done about it.
“If I don’t do it, who’s going to do it?”
From her perspective, the startup ecosystem could do with more people with deep industry expertise to step up and “be the innovators”, she says.
“With all due respect to the technologists, they can’t solve complex problems on their own. They can’t look around corners that we can look around.”
You have to be ambitious, and “a little bit blinkered” in the vision you’re trying to create.
“There are people who will tell you it’s not going to work and that you shouldn’t do it,” she says.
“You do have to go out on a limb and continue to drive it forward.”