UniCourt Influencer Q&A with Sonja Ebron of Courtroom5
Access to justice in the American legal system requires access to legal knowledge, the tools to apply that knowledge in a courtroom, and access to affordable assistance to assert legal rights. Sonja Ebron is the Co-founder and CEO of Courtroom5, a small but growing legal tech company focused on tackling the yawning access to justice gap in the United States with a platform that enables pro se litigants to handle their own court cases without paying costly attorneys’ fees.
We enjoyed sitting down with Sonja to learn more about her background and career as well as how Courtroom5 helps consumers handle civil litigation.
UniCourt: Tell us your story. What is your background, and what led you to what you are doing now?
Sonja Ebron: I grew up in Durham, North Carolina, still my home and favorite place in the world. I’m a PhD electrical engineer with a background in utilities and artificial intelligence. I started my career as an academic, but was never much of a scholar. Two previous startup experiences involved energy systems, but neither did much more than keep the lights on until circumstances killed them. By the time I went looking for a third startup, I understood the value of a co-founder, and I chose the smartest person I know, my wife Debra Slone. Debra’s a PhD librarian, but it turned out that what we both knew how to do best was to represent ourselves in court. When we realized there were millions of people representing themselves without the knowledge we had, we put together an educational project to share our learnings.
UC: What is Courtroom5? Can you explain what it does and what motivated you to start it?
SE: Courtroom5 is an automated legal toolbox for people in court without a lawyer, or pro se litigants. It addresses the two primary needs of pro se litigants in complex cases. First, we need help to decide the next step in our cases. Secondly, we need help to implement the next step we choose. So the toolbox uses artificial intelligence to focus our attention on the training needed at our stage in the case. It also includes tools for claims analysis, searchable case law, and document assembly, all integrated with relevant training on the litigation process. It walks a layman step-by-step through complex civil litigation. We were motivated by our personal experiences in court and the gratitude and feedback we received from early users. We built something that would’ve helped us avoid trivial but costly mistakes in our first cases.
UC: Why do you think it’s important to equip consumers with the tools to handle their own disputes? How do you think that companies like yours will change the legal practice landscape?
SE: We all have a constitutional right to petition our government. And yet our courts are so backwards that they require us to pay tens of thousands of dollars to a lawyer to represent us, to exercise that constitutional right. That, in our opinion, is a violation of access to justice, therefore a violation of the rule of law, therefore a violation of a basic tenet of democracy. If regular people lack the ability to petition a branch of our government without spending their life savings, then we don’t have a democracy.
The experience of thousands of our customers suggests that average people can do much of what a lawyer on full-scope representation does for a client. A combination of technology and basic education in civil procedure can help the average person handle much of that work. Our toolset provides an opportunity for consumer lawyers to practice their profession at a higher level – to help people who are representing themselves – through the delivery of a la carte services. There’s an opportunity here for consumer lawyers to change the way they do business and develop more profitable business models serving self-represented litigants.
UC: What is your specific role as CEO? What does a typical day look like for you?
SE: The best thing about my job is that there IS no typical day. Every day is different. We are a very small company, and so my job as CEO is to get in where I fit in, to be the glue that delivers our service where more specialized staff have left gaps. I do a little bit of everything. I do a basic task of leadership and fundraising and paying the bills and interviewing customers and monitoring product development, and so on. But my primary role is to maintain and communicate a vision for what Courtroom5 will be when it’s grown up, in a rapidly changing industry environment.
UC: What advice would you give other women who want to start a legal tech company or work in legal tech?
SE: My advice for anyone who wants to work in legal tech is the same, regardless of gender. And that is, if you see something broken that you can help fix, accept the obligation to help fix it. Brokenness is not hard to find in the justice system, so you don’t have to look hard. For women in particular, we should strive to remember that we are socialized to understate our accomplishments and our capabilities. So often when women are looking for partners and funding to fix something, we fail to correct for that socialization. To succeed, we have to think more boldly and express ourselves more boldly than our gender training allows. That training forces us to assume we can do more than we think we can, because in reality, we usually can.
UC: What are some of your favorite sayings? What are some real-world examples of how you’ve seen those sayings come to life?
SE: The most helpful saying for me in understanding how the world works is my own reminder: “Justice is the antidote to chaos.” We saw that last year with the widespread revolt over historic racial injustice in the U.S. Chaos is a consequence of injustice. We also witnessed our representatives in Congress return immediately to the work of electing a president after Capitol Hill rioters sought to disrupt them. Justice quells chaos. But my favorite quote is Yoda’s observation: “Do or do not; there is no try.” There is a long road ahead before we know whether Courtroom5 did or did not accomplish its mission, but I’d like to think our effort reflects that maxim.
UC: What are your goals for 2021? What projects are you working on? Are there any events in the legal tech space we should be aware of?
SE: We plan to 10X the number of people we’re serving this year. All of our work is geared to achieving this goal, and preparing to do it again next year.
There are many wonderful conferences and workshops related to access to justice; I’m reluctant to name any of them because I’d leave some out. Rather, the events I’m looking for this year are positive changes on the justice front, from the regulatory environment to the growth and funding of legal tech startups serving consumers.
UC: Where can we learn more about you and your work?
Empowering People with Knowledge and Tools
As Sonja notes, in many smaller cases, “average people can do much of what a lawyer on full-scope representation does for a client.” Leveraging legal tech and basic knowledge of civil processes can give consumers the tools they need to handle their own cases and obtain the justice they’re seeking inside of a courtroom or a Zoom room.
We look forward to watching Courtroom5 grow and are excited to see Sonja’s continued impact on legal tech in the access to justice space.