Lawyers are like rhinoceroses: thick-skinned, short-sighted and always ready to charge. It’s a witticism of British Conservative politician David Mellor, but jokes about lawyers and their
astronomical fees are as old as the legal profession itself. With her My Legal Briefcase software, however, Monica Goyal (JD 2008) hopes to deflate some of those punchlines.
Launched in 2011, My Legal Briefcase is the TurboTax of legal representation. A do-it-yourself kit, it removes the need for a lawyer in simpler legal scenarios by helping users create a variety of customized forms, including small claims, contracts and wills. “It represents a range of documents that you’d have in a briefcase,” says Goyal, “but it’s your briefcase, not a lawyer’s. It shows what you can do on your own.”
As a law student, Goyal worked at a legal aid clinic, taking a particular interest in human rights, social justice and equality issues. Seeing how court costs could escalate to tens of thousands of dollars – and prove unaffordable for many individuals – Goyal understands why people often attempt self-representation. “They can’t pay to litigate, but at the same time, they can’t advocate adequately for their rights.”
While articling at a major downtown Toronto firm, Goyal witnessed prohibitive legal rates first-hand. “My billable rate was $200, and I kept thinking, “Is what I’m doing worth $200 per hour?’” says Goyal. “If something happened to me, or if I needed a lawyer, I wouldn’t have been able to afford myself.”
My Legal Briefcase equips users with the legal jargon and documents they need to successfully represent themselves for less complex matters such as contracts and wills. At around $40 a pop, the software guides users through a questionnaire about the nature of their cases to create custom forms. “That’s what the legal process is: a series of prompts,” says Goyal. “Depending on answers and decisions, the process changes.” Goyal modelled her company on LegalZoom, a similar service – although My Legal Briefcase remains unique in providing a fully automated approach: the system fills in the documents automatically based on user information.
With a background in electrical engineering and computer graphics, Goyal spent several years working as a computer chip designer in Silicon Valley. To develop her product, she applied the tech industry’s inventive spirit to her passion for the law. “In tech, you’re always asking, ‘What am I doing? How can I make it better and more affordable?’” she explains.
Boasting thousands of users and with two patents pending, My Legal Briefcase’s success has encouraged Goyal to expand the range of forms and features. She and her team recently added a Q-and-A section to arm users with advice before they head to court. “I spend most of my time on My Legal Briefcase–related work,” she says, who still practises as a lawyer. “If you want to get a business going, it becomes your full-time job. It’s always morphing and always rewarding.”