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No lawyer? No problem. Courtroom5 wins cases for the unrepresented.

Courtroom5 posing image

Legal tech for self-representation, an emerging new normal in US civil courts

Here’s an open secret about U.S. state courthouses. Each year, some 19 million defendants—with no lawyer to defend them—stand before a civil court judge and whiteknuckle their way through life-changing lawsuits, where they lose in 96 percent of their cases.

Pro se means “for oneself,” but Durham-based startup Courtroom5 hopes to make its users feel a little less alone by empowering them to act as their own lawyer if they can’t afford to hire one. Courtroom5’s end-to-end, AI-powered digital legal platform was created during a time of seismic change in the role courts and lawyers play in everyday Americans’ lives. For $75 monthly, Courtroom teaches clients to craft motions and draft pleadings that will land them a fair hearing in civil suits (non-criminal cases that do not come with a right to counsel in the U.S.). The app’s AI chatbot Sylvia

Sylvia uses Google cloud to scope case progress daily.

uses Google Cloud to scope case progress daily, so users only get fine-tuned specifics for their needs.

“More than seven out of ten who complete their cases at Courtroom5 either win or settle,” says Sonja Ebron, who co-founded Courtroom5 with her wife Debra Slone. “We’ve had people thank us for helping them retain custody of their children, or keep them in their homes under foreclosure, or gain access to an inheritance. We’re very happy to be able to serve in this way.”

Since debuting in 2017, the startup legal platform has helped level the playing field for thousands of self-represented litigants in all 50 states and in most of the U.S.’ total 94 district courts. In 2019, the Durham-based startup participated in Google for Startups’ Black Founders Exchange program, hosted by American Underground, and bested 11 other competitors in a pitch competition, winning non-dilutive cash and investor meetings at Google headquarters. Early last year, the startup won financial backing from global funding group ShEO that supports women entrepreneurs.

But what do actual judges say? Judge Richard Posner–the influential American jurist, who resigned from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in 2017, in protest that people without lawyers are mistreated by the justice system–namedropped the startup in his recent book on overhauling the American judiciary, “For guidance on 'do it yourself' litigation, see Courtroom5.com.”

Proudly pro se: Courtroom5 and the Americans priced out of legal services

Ebron, a PhD electrical engineer, and her business partner, Debra Slone, who holds a PhD in information systems and library science, built Courtroom5, galvanized by their own firsthand experiences winning court cases after being unable to afford lawyers.

“We got beat up,” as Ebron recounts the couple’s first pro se court hearing. “As academics, we felt a responsibility, once we figured out how to navigate the system, to share it with others,” adds co-founder Debra Slone.

While not uncommon in the startup world for spouses to launch a company together, the couple work consciously to balance talents and sync energies. “Sonja showed me how to scale my talent for turning information into power so we could help people protect their rights,” says Slone. “Debra keeps me energized and passionate about our customers' success by reminding me what our work means to them,” adds Ebron.

Together, their legal odyssey through civil case courtrooms in North Carolina uncovered a civic disruption and market trend that remains pervasive across all fifty US states. An estimated three out of five people in civil cases now go to court without a lawyer, a new norm quietly ushered into American middle-class life over the 2010s, through Great Recession courtroom budget cuts, a decline in civic institutions that once brokered community disputes, and sprawling attorney fees that make cases valued under $100,000 not worth pursuing.

“We are unique in the market. We are the only organization that is actively preparing pro se litigants handling complex cases do a better job in representing themselves,” says Slone, who notes the company’s motto: For pro se litigants by pro se litigants.

Priced out of legal services, the rising tide of Americans who go pro se in court encounter deeply unequal outcomes: evictions, negative debt settlement, and cases quickly dismissed with prejudice. More than 75% of U.S. civil cases now have at least one pro se party, a number that goes a long way in explaining that when it comes to “accessibility and affordability of civil justice," the World Justice Project's 2021 Rule of Law Index now ranks the U.S. 126th out of 139 countries with the US dropping 40 spots since 2015.

“What we’re dealing with is one of the biggest market failures in the U.S. You have millions and millions of people who would happily hire a lawyer if they could. But they can’t,” says Slone. “On the other hand, you have consumer-facing lawyers, but they can’t always find enough paying consumers to afford their practices.Technology has a way of resolving that anytime you have a market failure.”

As Ebron and Slone began to sketch out the contours of Courtroom5 a decade ago, the co-founders’ daily experience in civil court methodically revealed the pain points of their future customers.

“When I was in the courtroom, I wasn’t there to do customer discovery. Yet when I saw the scale of the problem, my entrepreneur bell started ringing, and I started forming potential business models,” adds Ebron. “We would see pro se plaintiffs and watch them not understand what elements they needed to include in their complaint to get a judge to pay attention to the actual facts of the case. Every day, we would see that their claims were being routinely dismissed.”

Litigation is adversarial. Courtroom5 is ready for battle

The cofounder couple understood these new pro se litigants needed far more than tips on appearing in court. To succeed, Courtroom5 had to provide a crash course on courtroom reality.

“Litigation is never easy. People in court without a lawyer, particularly when their opponent has a lawyer, feel overwhelmed and abused by the courts,” adds Slone, who prioritizes staying close to the customer experience. “People new to self-representation can imagine the first courtroom experience like a business meeting or appointment. It’s not like that. Litigation is very adversarial. In real litigation, you must move a judge in your direction over and over again, before a trial even becomes possible.”

These basics are also covered in Courtroom5’s much-loved training video “How to slay* in court without a lawyer.” Conveying courtroom mechanics in supportive, down-to-earth language is why Courtroom5 connects with so many pro se litigants, often overwhelmed by the details of their civil suits.

“People are very intimidated when they go to see a lawyer, or when they go to see a judge. But civil procedure is just about what information they are asking. Courtroom5 is designed to provide just enough information to help them answer that question and choose from a limited set of options,” adds Slone.

Beyond its AI training and legal ethos, Courtroom5 delivers online community to counter the loneliness of pro se courtroom life. “I’m glad I found you. I was about to give up,” says Slone. “That’s a comment we get a lot.”

“Many tech offerings these days don't think much of their customers talking to each other. We promote that as much as possible because we know, given the struggles we have with the court systems, that we're gonna be our best friends,” says Slone. “Many of us don't tell our friends and family when we're in court. So, we're very isolated. We're dealing with these struggles on our own just emotionally, not to mention our information needs. So we're very proud of our community at Courtroom5."

Reaching the unrepresented: Using Google Ads, AI, and Cloud

Courtroom5 emerges at a time when unrepresented litigants “have become a permanent fixture in the U.S. legal landscape.” To reach this pro se audience, that is rarely courted by marketers, the co-founders have relied on Google Ads.

“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,” says Ebron. “Google Ads has brought us most of our customers.They were getting us customers before we even had a product to sell, back when we thought the solution was just sharing information, not yet developing actual tools for people to use in court.”

But it’s through Sylvia, Courtroom5’s intelligent chatbot, where the Google tech stack really shines.

“Sylvia is riding on a Google Cloud product. Under the hood, Slyvia is tracking users’ progress through the case and keeps all the details about your case in one place so you're ready to fire off a filing at any time,” said Ebron.

The data architecture provided by Google Cloud delivers a seamless user experience, where litigants can “tell” the app about filings, evidence, and associated parties. “Sylvia knows what is happening in each user’s case, and can speak to specific options, if you just had a complaint filed against you, and what the options are to get that complaint dismissed quickly,” adds Ebron.

To be clear, Courtroom5 is not a law firm, does not provide legal advice or legal services, and is no substitute for a lawyer. Courtroom5 can best be considered a type of justice tech—a growing movement of largely U.S.-based data and technology projects that address gaps in the justice system and improve access to justice for low- and middle-income individuals.

As justice tech, Courtroom5 works beautifully for specific types of common legal situations, such as probate, debt, and civil rights infractions.

“Probably the most frequent type of case we see is debt collection. There’s also lots of divorce cases where one spouse does not have a lawyer. We have also seen other types of family law situations, like child support or custody arrangements, as well as bankruptcy, probate, and civil rights claims for being wrongfully terminated,” adds Ebron. To respect its users’ time, Courtroom5 is also very upfront about specific case types for which the platform is not suited, such as simple family law matters, evictions, and criminal charges (it’s a product for civil court cases only).

“The beauty of what we do is essentially offering a law school education–with a just in time approach. We’re dealing with users who have demanding lives, families, jobs, while facing litigation. We’ve got single mothers coming home from their job, taking care of their kids, and then working on a case at Courtroom5,” says Ebron.

The COVID-19 pandemic compounded these existing circumstances with a new wave of foreclosures, bankruptcies, and consumer debt—and fewer opportunities to meet with anyone, including lawyers, in person.

As demand continues to skyrocket, Ebron hopes to leverage growing traction for Courtroom5 and support from programs like the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund to reach and impact thousands of new customers, and show traction for future financing. “Receiving an equity-free cash award and mentorship from Google for Startups gave us tremendous credibility with potential investors and partners. A VC who heard about the Black Founders Fund reached out to us and immediately invested. Another chose to increase his current investment in our round. Now, they’re saying, ‘If Google's in, I'm in.’”

Market failure, Justice Tech and the future of Courtroom5

For the foreseeable future, having or not having an attorney will still remain the single most important factor in finding courtroom justice. But as the ranks of the self-represented continue to grow in the U.S., another distinction may yet emerge among the self-represented: Those who turn to Courtroom5 and its upstart community of victorious pro se litigants.

For investors, Courtroom5 poses a vivid example of how agile technology can respond to a market failure. An ongoing survey of the more than 15,000 U.S. civil case courtrooms where each year, an estimated 46 million people attempt to resolve cases involving custody, divorce, housing, child support, and consumer disputes—consistently find a self-represented litigant in 3 out of every 4 cases.

“Wherever there is a market failure, you are going to have investors interested in a solution. We have great conversations with investors and there’s a growing interest in legal tech, particularly in justice tech, by which I mean technology companies focusing on improving access and services for legal consumers, instead of legal practices,” says Ebron. “It’s now become relatively easy to identify investors who are receptive to what we are doing.”

To better make the case to like minded investors, Courtroom5 recently cofounded the Justice Technology Association, an upstart working trade group that aims to “support initiatives that seek to shape the consumer legal experience for the greater good, drive social impact, increase access to justice and grow the newly minted justice tech market.”

Among these justice tech startups, what will continue to differentiate Courtroom5 is how the platform centers the experience of the overwhelmed pro se litigant—who is often entering a courtroom for the first time in their life, with no lawyer by their side.

“When I talk to investors about the size of the problem on a national level, they understand it, and they understand our approach. Courtroom5 has a consumer focus, improving access to justice for people who want to hire a lawyer but can’t afford it,” says Ebron. “We guide you through the hard work of clearing procedural hurdles and show you how to create your own unique documents so you get a fair hearing in court.”

Learn more about Courtroom5