As an associate attorney at one of the world’s largest law firms, Dorna Moini noticed a perennial issue: Needlessly complex procedural requirements hampered meaningful progress in the firm’s pro bono domestic violence cases. Determined to remove procedural hurdles for low-income Americans in need of legal services, Dorna launched her first product – HelpSelf – which eventually paved a pathway to Documate, a no-code automation platform that empowers lawyers to build applications that automate basic legal functions.
We were fortunate to talk with Dorna about Documate and her role in promoting access to justice for American legal consumers.
UniCourt: Tell us your story. What is your background, and what inspired you to start your company?
Dorna Moini: I started my career as a litigator, practicing for about 7 years, last at Sidley Austin. There, I also represented domestic violence survivors and asylees pro bono. But I found a majority of my pro bono cases engulfed by routine, form or template-based work. The court forms and the procedural requirements were drafted to be so complex that the average litigant could not make sense of them without legal advice. So, with my co-founder at the technical helm, we decided to build a “TurboTax” for domestic violence survivors. We launched a product called “HelpSelf” that was (and is still) used by pro bono lawyers at firms, legal aid organizations, and domestic violence shelters across California. Our goal was to expand into other areas needed by low-and moderate-income Americans.
After launch, we started getting inbound interest from other organizations wanting to build similar tools for other jurisdictions and other areas of law. We realized that we could help more people through a software platform (instead of building out all of the content). That’s why we created Documate, a no-code document automation platform that empowers the expert lawyer to build legal applications that automate their expertise. And they don’t need to hire a technical co-founder like we did.
UC: Tell us more about Documate. What is it? How does it work?
DM: Documate is a no-code automation platform that allows you to build document assembly applications and expert systems. The platform is twofold:
- The Questionnaire: First, you set up all the questions you want to ask to gather the data you need for your documents. This part works like Typeform or SurveyMonkey to collect information.
- Your Documents: Then, you load your documents (.docx, Google Doc, Word, or fillable PDF documents) and you connect (“tag”) those documents to the questions you created.
You can set complex conditional logic, Boolean operators, calculations, repeating items (“loops”), and upload files. The limit is your imagination, and you can even build applications that just issue decisions and don’t generate documents.
Our mission is to democratize the development process by allowing lawyers to use their expertise to build complex technology without a developer. In turn, this will democratize the legal system, creating more low-cost legal solutions for the middle class.
UC: How did your time working in BigLaw catalyze your desire to launch Documate? In other words, what need or gap in the field do you believe that Documate addresses?
DM: Though we originally built Documate to solve a need in the legal aid space, it applies just as much to BigLaw, especially now, and we have several large firm clients. Due to ever-increasing client pressure to be more efficient and bill less, firms are turning to automation for everything from simple agreements to complex rules-based work.
Many larger law firms use HotDocs or Contract Express, but because you need to learn to code, these tools have low adoption rates within firms. At Documate, we’re seeing that everyone from summer associates to senior partners at big law firms are willing to get on Documate to build out workflows and collaborate with their knowledge management teams, because it’s so easy and intuitive.
UC: How do you think that automation within legal services will facilitate access to justice?
DM: Americans just can’t afford legal services delivered in the traditional way. For those who haven’t read the Legal Services Corporation’s Justice Gap Report, I’ll repeat the statistic: In 2017, 86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help.
Yes, our legal system is complex. But it’s also mostly rules-driven. With enough effort, we can take many of these complex rules and turn them into intelligent decision trees, allowing the limited number of legal aid attorneys to work on more high-value work for their clients.
UC: What are some of your favorite sayings? Do you have any real-world examples of how you’ve seen those sayings come to life?
DM: Wayne Gretzky famously said: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it’s been.”
At Documate, we believe that the delivery of legal services is going to change dramatically in the next decade, including through unbundling, systemization, and a move toward flat fee services. Document automation and decision-making through expert systems (assisted by decision-tree logic, large data sets, and machine learning) will be crucial to law firms who want to stay competitive, both in efficiency and in getting results.
Another one I love is “UI is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it’s not that good.” It’s self-explanatory, and it’s how we approach our product every day. We aim for a level of telepathy between our software and our user.
UC: As the Co-Founder and CEO of a legal tech company, what would you say to other women interested in starting their own legal tech companies or working in the legal tech industry?
DM: If you’re thinking about (or have already started) building a legal tech company, reach out to other founders. The legal tech community is incredibly supportive, and you can learn so much before you start. Your company is solving problems in a unique and innovative way, but many of the base challenges we face with getting a business off the ground are the same. Reading about other entrepreneurs’ experiences and being curious about others can help you learn exactly how to run marketing and sales, price your product, craft your hiring process, scale, etc.
Also, think hard about sustainability when you’re developing your business model – whether that’s going to be through grants, fundraising, or a for-profit model. We launched our initial domestic violence platform idealistically, thinking that if we built something powerful that helped people, everything else would be easy. We took those learnings into Documate, where we charge for our software, but give huge discounts to nonprofits to meet the needs of the legal aid organizations we built Documate to serve.
UC: What are your professional goals for the coming year? What projects are you working on? Are there any upcoming events or conferences in the legal tech space we should be aware of?
DM: This year, we’re working with many more law students, and I’m also teaching the Legal Innovations Lab at USC Law School. I have loved working with law students on legal innovation projects – not having been exposed to practice yet, they come up with extraordinary “out of the box” ideas to solve problems. We have developed a curriculum for law schools to use to teach students about automation, and we give legal technology classes access to Documate accounts for all their students.
As far as conferences, given that our roots are in legal aid, you can find us at the Legal Services Corporation and at the Self-Represented Litigation Network conference every year. We’ll be at ABA TechShow this year, and we are also hosting the Global Legal Hackathon’s LA event.
Where can we learn more about you and your work?
If you don’t know anything about us, watch our tutorial videos here or book a demo with me here. We’re always posting updates about our software and case studies on what our clients are building on our website at www.documate.org. You can also reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DocumateLaw (or me @dorna_moini).
A Complex, but Rules-Driven, System
As Dorna notes, our legal system is governed by a complex network of rules and regulations. But resources like Documate are cracking the code, helping lawyers to break down these complexities into meaningful systems and processes that extend their reach and position them to deliver higher value work.
We look forward to seeing how Documate continues to serve lawyers and the access to justice movement in the future.