Why This Successful Website Is Going Brick And Mortar
Lecturer Rolan Vogle spoke with Inc.'s Christina DesMarais about the decision by LegalForce to open a brick and mortar store in Palo Alto, and why the decision is indicative of the legal service website's future goals.
It seems like a head-scratcher: Why would a legal services website that grew 35 percent last year, and every month gets 2 million unique visitors and 500 new small business clients, suddenly want to go brick and mortar? And it's an unusual retail offering at that--LegalForce, formerly branded as Trademarkia, recently opened in Silicon Valley a tablet store, book store, legal office, event venue and lounge, all rolled into one.
Situated right across the street from an Apple store in a busy Palo Alto shopping district, LegalForce's physical store will be the first of what founder and CEO Raj Abhyanker hopes will one day be a national chain. The idea is to make legal services as accessible as possible to regular folks, much like how easy it is to get on-demand accounting help by walking into an H&R Block, or how One Medical Group uses technology to improve access and communication between doctors and patients through things like same-day online scheduling and direct patient email access to physicians.
Even so, going brick and mortar isn't cheap, especially when you're talking about premier Silicon Valley real estate. Can LegalForce stores get enough foot traffic to pay the rent?
Maybe not in the short term, says Dr. Roland Vogl, executive director of CodeX, short for the Center for Legal Informatics at Stanford, who met Abhyanker when he pitched his idea for LegalForce at a Stanford startup summit last year.
"My sense is... he is not too concerned with making the stores themselves profitable in the near future. It sounds to me like his desire is to make the point that you can take the fancy mahogany furniture and marble clad law firm environment away and have something that's more accessible to everyone... and take away the price tag from accessing competent legal counsel, which is what we currently have in the country," says Vogl, who is now a strategic advisor to LegalForce.
In the long term it might be a different story. Vogl says he can see LegalForce doing what Quality Solicitors has already done in the U.K., where non-lawyers are allowed to invest in law firms, which brings in more capital for tech innovation and makes it possible to run firms more like real businesses instead of consultancies. Essentially, Quality Solicitors is doing over there what LegalForce wants to do in the U.S.--group together large numbers of law firms to operate out of hundreds of branches that offer approachable, same-day service.
"I think that's where the trend is going," Vogl says.