15 years later, LegalZoom still fighting to fix ‘a quiet crisis’

by Tessa McLean
May 23, 2016

The best kind of business you can find yourself in is one that lets you do good in the world while doing well for yourself.

That’s one of the thoughts that keeps a fire lit under Eddie Hartman, who founded

with Brian Lee, Robert Shapiro and Brian Liu in 1999. The Glendale, Calif.-based company officially launched two years later, and opened its regional headquarters in Austin in 2010.

That office has been growing ever since. Powered by 864 solar panels and more than 400 employees, the Spectrum Drive building still has desks to fill. LegalZoom is hiring in Austin across its departments, from sales and operations to design, development and engineering.

Lisa Fernandez, Director of Talent Management, attributes the company’s success largely to the enthusiasm of its employees.

“Zoomers are sharp-minded, driven individuals who embrace the LegalZoom mission of democratizing law,“ she said. ”They thrive in a fun yet challenging work environment that offers an opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives."

The original mission

At LegalZoom, that mission of democratizing law is more than just a poster in a conference room. The company was created to fight what Hartman calls an ongoing quiet crisis denying most Americans a basic civil liberty: Equal standing before the law.

“Thomas Jefferson said it’s the bedrock of democracy,” Hartman said, referring to a pillar of classical liberalism that predates Jefferson as far back as Greek philosophy and endures today as the state motto of Nebraska. “But in order to have equal standing before the law, you need to be able to understand the law. And the average reading level in America is between seventh and eighth grade.”

And therein lies the rub. Anyone who’s accepted the end-user license agreement on an iTunes update knows why most of us can’t prepare our own legal documents. That means most of us can’t establish a business or even a last will and testament without hiring a lawyer, which is beyond the means of many Americans.

“We think of these as rights, but it’s like a public beach that’s walled off,” said Hartman (pictured left). “If you get there, it’s free. But how do you get over the wall? If that’s the body of the law and you have a seventh grade read-write ability, you’ve got a ladder that doesn’t reach to the top of that at all.”

Early in the life of LegalZoom, Hartman and Liu spent the better part of a summer working with a team of interns from UCLA Law to break down common legal documents into their essential ingredients. Once they determined the basic required input, they created simplified online forms that are easy to complete without any legal training.

But Hartman is quick to clarify LegalZoom has always been about more than automated forms. There’s a service side of the business, too.

“It’s about getting your business founding document in the hands of secretary of state with the proper filing fee attached,” Hartman said. “Or even with last will and testament — we’re looking to surprise and delight people there, too. Those documents can fail if they’re lost in a drawer, and will break if you sell the assets you intend to leave, or divorce a spouse in the will.”

The path beyond paperwork

These are the legal sandpits where the law gets difficult to navigate and the rights of average citizens to equal protection become tenuous. And ironically it was due to legal restrictions that even LegalZoom has long been limited in how much help it can give.

The company is prohibited from giving any legal advice to its users whatsoever — even identifying the correct form to use — by a regulation known as the unauthorized practice of law.

Along the way, LegalZoom has built up a referral network of vetted and trusted attorneys who can make those recommendations. The company even purchased a law firm in the U.K. to expand the service side of the business.

While LegalZoom began with the mission of giving more people access to justice, Hartman said these days the company is paving the path for them to find that access themselves and level the legal playing field.

“We’ve stopped being a follower, if we ever were,” Hartman said. “And we started being a leader. It’s exciting because the community — I’m a lawyer, part of the profession — is starting to ask us to show them the path forward.”

 

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