Legal entrepreneur and former student politician Anton Smith has developed a legal marketplace that continues to break down legal barriers using technology and some legal smarts.
Talking with LawFuel, Anton Smith discussed the long journey to develop Consensus as an online law market.
The Consensus business model requires lawyers to post their response to legal jobs posted by clients. Using technology and the oncoming digital tsunami many believe will transform the way legal services are delivered, Consensus` view is that the legal market needs to be flattened and made `more agile`.
Unconnected to any firm or legal provider, the role of the legal startup is to make connections with clients seeking good lawyers anywhere . . and about anything.
A competitor to Mai Chen’s MyAdvice.Legal, the business started from an interest Anton Smith had long held in altering the status quo.
At Auckland University he sat in on lectures on innovation and entrepreneurship, underpinned by a long-standing interest in empowering consumers and “challenging the status quo.” Developing a client-centric legal practice or software became a driving force.
A former lawyer with Duncan Cotterill`s Auckland office before switching to Simpson Grierson where he cut his start-up teeth working on the Seed Co-Investment Funct (SCIF) operated by the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund (NZVIF), which invests in local start-ups along with others.
Working also with The Icehouse and Flux Accelerator he advised on a range of early-stage comanies about various legal issues and left Simpson Grierson to work with 2Degrees in 2017, when he also co-founded Consensus.
A person with a strong sense of social justice, he was also prominent in student politics.
LF: So did student activism lead to Consensus being formed?
AM: I wouldn’t necessarily agree that my background is in student politics or activism. I never sought election to a student body or took on partisan causes, for example.
I have volunteered for some awesome charities that I personally benefited from or whose missions resonated with me (e.g. UN Youth New Zealand and The Equal Justice Project) and I’ve also been paid to work for a students’ association in an advocacy role while I was still studying (Auckland University Students’ Association).
LF: How did you launch Consensus?
AS: The journey to get to launching consensus.nz has been a long one, demonstrated best by the fact that we raised seed capital for Consensus following our very first pitch.
The amount of research about the legal industry in Aotearoa and overseas, the work that went into what we were building and the cohesiveness of our team combined at just the right time, but the theorising about how the legal industry could (and should) evolve started long before that.
I should say that starting something new is never just one person, and Consensus wouldn’t exist without my co-founders who have built our solution and developed our strategy, the support of our friends and family and the incredible backing of our investor, Auckland UniServices Limited through its Return on Science commercialisation programme.
LF: So when did the idea for Consensus first arise?
AS: The idea for Consensus had floated around in my brain for a long time while I was working as a lawyer.
It was pretty uncomplicated then – a digital platform allowing Kiwi lawyers to find work from clients anywhere in Aotearoa or overseas, and for clients to be charged fixed fees.
Once my co-founders and I started working on a business plan in earnest in February 2017, unsurprisingly we discovered that ‘uncomplicated’ idea was actually incredibly complex, and if it was going to work we were going to have to put the time in to make it simple.
We spent the rest of 2017 thinking about how we could do that up until we decided to present to the Return on Science programme. And that simplicity journey is on-going.
LF: Do you see Consensus as a disrupter with the ability to make the law more accessible?
Consensus certainly aims to make legal advice more accessible. Whether Consensus is a ‘disrupter’ depends on how you view the term ‘disruption’.
Consensus is focused on making engaging a lawyer (in the usual way) easier, clearer and less daunting. We think that’s innovative, but it’s not replacing the need for lawyers or legal advice – it’s simply focused on solving that access problem.
LF: Did you study similar online legal markeplace sites like RocketLaw?
AM:We conducted a comprehensive competitive analysis of a wide range of service industry platforms in Aotearoa and overseas before launching Consensus, and we are constantly identifying new innovations.
We found there were a number of similar websites focused on the needs of commercial organisations for a number of years, but few options that adequately serviced both businesses and individuals.
The majority of other ‘legal tech’ innovators have really only focused on the way the law is practised (ie selling to law firms/B2B). We considered we wanted to focus on how the ‘business of law’ was done (ie B2C) for the majority of Kiwis and Kiwi businesses, and we wanted to cater to as many different kinds of legal work applicable to those clients as possible – although that may change, watch this space.
LF: So what do you see Consensus being?
AS: We want Consensus to be a ‘one-stop shop’ for the Kiwis most common legal needs.
Finally, a large part of that access problem is helping clients determine who’s ‘good’ – in the age when most people just Google “property lawyer Auckland”, it’s almost impossible to gauge.
That’s why Consensus has implemented a mutual rating system, meaning when a client receives a proposal from a lawyer they can get a high-level indication of how others clients have found working with them.
That’s game-changing and valuable for clients, and the lawyers who have registered early on Consensus are those who back themselves to provide excellent service.
LF: Is there any specific point of difference from other such platforms?
AS:Consensus’ key points of difference compared to other such platforms are:
Fixed-fee/price certainty preference.
Independent of any firm or private practice lawyers.
Superior user experience.
NZ-centric and NZ-based.
Conduct business securely on the platform, including messaging and document sharing
LF: How are you funded?
AS:Auckland UniServices Limited (the commercialisation arm of the University of Auckland) has invested in Consensus
LF: How is the business going in terms of usage and lawyer sign-ups?
As at the day of writing, we have over 60 registered clients using Consensus and 8 registered lawyers across a range of expertise. Clients are posting great legal work, largely in relation to Business Jobs and Property jobs.
For example, a start-up called Acuris Systems (which is focused on revolutionising the kiwifruit industry) was seeking legal assistance with its pilot programme contracts. Acuris posted the job on Consensus, received two proposals from specialist commercial lawyers in different parts of the country, and ultimately selected one for a great fixed fee.
This is exactly what we want every single user of legal services in Aotearoa (and beyond) to be able to benefit from.
LF: On a more general note, what do you see as the trends most likely to affect lawyers in the next 5-10 years and which technologies will have greatest effect?
Technologies like artificial intelligence software, document automation including smart contracts (e.g. Gene Turner’s LawHawk) and purpose-built digital platforms developed to help clients undertake their own compliance work (e.g. Simpson Grierson’s SchoolSafe and BusinessSafe solutions) will change the way legal advice is compiled and provided by lawyers, making advice more accurate, quicker and cheaper.
However, lawyers and law firms aren’t going anywhere, and nor should they. The profession and the services it provides will always be very valuable. That’s why this industry is worth approximately $3 billion a year in Aotearoa alone.
Kiwis and Kiwi businesses rely on legal practitioners to build relationships of trust and confidence with them and to appropriately and nobly discharge their duties. They also rely on lawyers as ‘shoulders to cry on’ and cheerleaders – smart people who are in your corner of the ring. That is the kind of support everyone should get access to, in a ‘client-centric’ way.
[/vc_column_text][ultimate_ctation]An early research achievement –
Sixteen year old Christs College student Anton Smith was nominated in the Royal Society’s ‘Realise the Dream’ programme in the Young Historian Competition. His project was for the investigation of the assassination of John F Kennedy. In particular, the project evaluated both the Warren Commission’s ‘Single Assassin Theory’ and the ‘American Intelligence Plot Theory’. Excellence in this project is demonstrated through the research processes used (as detailed in the student’s work book), the construction of the historical narrative on the basis of the research completed, and the evaluation of the contrasting theories to draw conclusions as to their validity on the basis of the researched evidence.[/ultimate_ctation][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_tta_pageable][vc_tta_section title=”Section 1″ tab_id=”1533721268596-6b3311a2-bc2f”][vc_column_text]