Having failed twice, this entrepreneur set up NearLaw, an online specialist lawyer discovery platform

20th Nov 2017
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Launched by Vikas Sahita, NearLaw’s freemium AI-enabled database lets lawyers access legal information, and allows companies and consumers to find specialist lawyers.

If one spends roughly six months on an average researching flat-panel TVs online before making a purchase, US-based marketing professional Vikas Sahita reckoned that finding a lawyer online warranted a more intelligent algorithm. After all, one would potentially spend five years – the average time for a case to get resolved in India – with the lawyer.

Most lawyers, he found, were still languishing in the age of ASP and .NET and using archaic software sold on CD and DVD-ROMs for their research. They deserved more sophisticated tools and so Vikas, now 35, started up for the third time to create a one-stop repository for the legal needs of every individual, professional and organisation, in the form of nearlaw.com.

The team at Nearlaw

Third time lucky

An engineering dropout, Vikas went on to rank second in Mumbai University in economics (Bachelor’s and Master’s courses) and later, completed the one year executive program in management from Shailesh J. Mehta School of Management, IIT Bombay.

He started his career selling legal software in the Mumbai market for All India Reporter, the largest national law journal, through which he funded his MBA education in the US.

Upon graduating, he joined Sears Holdings in 2008 and worked his way up from being an analyst to the Director of Marketing, in less than three years. But having made it that far, he realised how much more exhilarating building a world-class product from India would be. And so, he returned to India mid-2011, and started a category-focused e-commerce venture.

That venture failed. 

He took another shot at entrepreneurship, retailing branded fashion jewellery online this time. The moderately successful venture was enough to send him chasing the dragon. But soon after, he found the model for his third and current venture, Nearlaw.

“While I was in the legal software sales business in Mumbai, my friends would always ask me for lawyer recommendations, seeking specialists in particular fields,” Vikas says.

This was the first missing link of many - small companies and individuals did not have a fool-proof way to find the right lawyer online. The second missing link was provided by his two of his friends- both of whom were practising lawyers - who informed him that the state of legal research in India still languished in the age of ASP and .NET.

“This was another ‘dot’ I connected - creating quality legal research tools for lawyers,” he says.

The third and final link was realising that “cloud” was now a mature technology and here to stay.

“This was the ‘third dot’, which when connected with the other two, gave me the answer – NearLaw, a cloud-based legal research platform that runs on all devices,” Vikas says.

Early validation

Launched in mid-August 2017, NearLaw is changing the way lawyers access legal information, and also the way companies and consumers discover lawyers. Their freemium AI-enabled database product can be used by lawyers, law firms, solicitors, companies, CAs, CSes and any legal professional to search for relevant case-law using keywords in “Headnotes” (legal summaries), or even by the Act and Section/ Order / Article / Rule.

NearLaw uses Natural Language Processing to ensure the relevance of search results (CaseRanking), and to visualise the network of cases that are connected (cited).

“We use Python - top to bottom- and have developed a proprietary model for summarisation of legal documents, judgments as well as acts and statutes. This saves a lot of time. Our entire stack is built on Ruby on Rails right now. Backend database is in MongoDB and API's are coded in Express,” Vikas explains.

For their mobile app, they use Google's voice API and are providing an intuitive voice interface for legal search.

“We're the pioneers of this in the world. We use a native framework and MongoDB at the backend with ElasticSearch for optimisation of search queries. We will soon be moving to a MVC framework to build more features on top and have faster releases,” he says.

Essentially for lawyers and law firms, Nearlaw offers sophisticated legal research tools such as eJudgements and ActsRules, to ensure that they find the right case-law and present it with an accurate summary or “headnote”, and to just generally stay informed about taxation and banking/finance related laws, amendments, notifications and judgments. 

It is also a legal marketplace and offers online legal services. MSMEs, startups and even individuals can use Nearlaw to find the right lawyer, and book a consultation.

“They would only pay for the work being done, without need of a costly retainer. The initial cost and lawyer specialisation - intellectual property rights, property disputes, marital discord - is mentioned in the listing. This is a vast improvement on the current process of figuring out the specialisation and costs only after meeting the lawyer,” Vikas explains.

This is how they do it

NearLaw’s early subscribers came through physical visits to courtrooms where lawyers practice. Besides this, the startup also built a knowledge base of popular law topics at http://kanoon.nearlaw.com, which helped them get more organic visitors. They have also been organising seminars at courts and tribunals, targeting lawyers and solicitors across Maharashtra.

“Apart from these strategies, we experiment with digital ads on LinkedIn, Google and Facebook. We are also building our own SEM (SEO focused) effort, slowly but surely,” Vikas says. 

With over 2,500 mostly Maharashtra-based lawyers on-boarded in 67 working days, they have been growing 15 percent week-on-week.

“We have deep information about every lawyer registered, and have been seeing a 60 percent conversion rate from a prospect to a free subscriber. We are seeing the potential to convert 20-25 percent of these subscribers into paid subscribers by April 2018, and would also like to expand to two more states by then,” he says.

NearLaw wishes to monetise this traction growth in three months once their data stack is significant. 

“In the next three months, we will monetise our subscriber base by offering more data (10x) of high courts, tribunals, state and central government notifications and automating most of these processes,” Vikas explains. 

Staying ahead

The startup is initially targeting the legal research market worth Rs 1,250 crore in India. In the future, they hope for a slice of the $3.6 billion market in the United States.

Another segment they are targeting is the online lawyer, legal services marketplaces, which, as a subset of the total legal services market, is pegged at $2.5 billion in India and $6 billion total services market in the US.

Locally, NearLaw is locking horns with existing players like ManupatraFast.com (charges a premium), IndianKanoon.org (free), LegalCrystal.com (with a freemium model), etc. As far as booking consultations with lawyers online is concerned, marketplaces like LawRato.com, Legistify.com and vakilsearch.com also currently exist.

“Our differentiators are that our legal research is enabled by AI/ NLP, is unique and priced to the value, depending on the client. We plan to integrate this offering with workflow and law-office management tools to differentiate these and ensure they are even more useful. Besides, another way we’re different from all online marketplaces is that we offer all lawyers free database access,” Vikas ends.

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