On September 20th, The Duke Center on Law and Tech hosted its 3rd annual Demo Day. The program was held at the Bullpen, Duke’s hub for innovation and entrepreneurship in downtown Durham.
As part of Demo Day, 5 legal startups were selected to participate in a pitch competition. Each company participating offered different solutions; however, their mission was the same—expanding access to legal services.
Courtroom5 walked away with the $5,000 first-place prize.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Sonja Ebron, one of the founders of the company. Sonja shared the story behind the company and insight on the future of legal tech.
LM: Can you tell us about your professional background?
SE: I’m a Ph.D. electrical engineer with a background in electric utilities and artificial intelligence (AI). I’ve done brief stints at utility companies but spent most of my career between academia and entrepreneurship. I’ve served on electrical engineering faculties at three universities, and Courtroom5 is my third startup.
LM: What is the significance of the name “courtroom5”?
SE: We spent a year or two on customer discovery under a different company name, but we needed to choose something brand-able to go to market. When co-founder Debra Slone and I met to brainstorm a new name, Luniz’ “I Got 5 On It” was playing in the background. Debra remarked that we could call the company “courtroom anything,” and Courtroom5 was born. But we’ve always thought our solution had five components – AI-driven legal information, litigation tools, procedural training, an online community for peer support, and eventually access to lawyers for a la carte services.
LM: What inspired you to develop this platform?
SE: Both Debra and I have been in court without a lawyer, and we’ve been denied justice as a result. Over the years, we’ve each learned enough to capably represent ourselves, but we’ve also seen many people abused by lack of knowledge and lack of access to justice. We saw people routinely denied the right to be heard in court. We conceived and built a platform to accelerate the learning process for them.
LM: What has been the most challenging aspect of launching Courtroom5?
SE: Quitting our jobs. We were both employed when we launched the company, but we knew that in order for it to prosper, we needed to make a full commitment. So, I stepped off the precipice first and quit my job. The company’s revenue allowed us to pay a few bills, and so Debra also quit her job. We’d given everything we had to ensure the company prospered.
LM: Can you tell us about your Duke Law Tech Lab experience and some of your key takeaways?
SE: We’re grateful to have been selected for this summer’s cohort of 12 legal tech startups, and to have won the Grand Prize at the Demo Day pitch competition. The program was a major boon to our access to justice work. We learned about the major challenges facing the industry. That was especially important for us as non-lawyers. We learned about the leading innovations in the field from other startups in the program. We were selected to join the LexisNexis Legal Tech Accelerator through their new partnership with the Duke Law Tech Lab. We also connected with other industry leaders who were extremely helpful in opening doors for us within their organizations.
LM: What advice do you have for other women who are looking to get involved in the tech industry?
SE: Identify some problem or inconvenience in your own life and find or build the technology to make it better. It may seem as though everything has already been invented, but it’s not true. The tech industry has missed lots of opportunities because the men who dominate it often lack our unique insights and experiences. You likely have a perspective, idea or approach to a problem that is innovative or more effective. Find a problem that needs solving, trust your instincts, and fix it with womansense.
LM: A study from the Kapor Center, Pivotal Ventures and Arizona State University's Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology found that women of color make up 80 percent of all new women-led small businesses in the US. In tech, however, that figure plummets to 4 percent. How do we increase the number of African American women in tech?
SE: The experience of African American women in the U.S. teaches us to take a backseat to nearly every other group of people. Our experience assures us that if running a tech company is a desirable status, then we should expect to be severely underrepresented. That is the shameful reality. Yet there is as much brilliance among Black women as there is in any other group, and the world needs more “Black Girl Magic”. The solution is to create sustained pathways for leadership devoted to African American girls and young women, and to actively remove the obstacles that tend to block our progress. We know how to do this. It’s the funding and societal will that is missing.
LM: How do you feel developments in technology will continue to shape the legal profession?
SE: Lawyers at all levels have expressed concern about the impact of artificial intelligence, but my own view is that the technology will grow the profession rather than shrink it. AI-powered legal research, for instance, is likely to increase the use of the nation’s case law, resulting in increased demand for lawyers who are technically proficient at these new tools. The same will be true of AI-powered contract review tools, which will increase demand for lawyers capable of tuning those tools for specific types of contracts. There are many other areas where AI can expand the types of work that requires lawyers, but those who best adapt to change will best succeed.
LM: What is next for Courtroom5?
SE: We’re going to maintain our leadership in pro se litigation support by growing market share, but we also plan to work more closely with the legal profession to best serve our customers, many of whom have little access to lawyers. This is one example of the way technology can serve the profession rather than threaten it.
LM: How can our readers learn more about the platform?
SE: Visit us at Courtroom5.