Sean Roche and Eunice Wells are from Lawfunder.org, Australia’s first legal cause and litigation crowdfunding platform. As part of the legal industry’s rising Gen-Y cohort, Sean and Eunice put their tech minds into gear to innovate and solve a long-standing industry problem.
Tell us a little bit about your idea and what made you decide to take the plunge and make it happen?
Our founder, Sean Roche, initially saw a gap in the market for legal-based fundraising and the possibility of additional financial support for those who can’t afford to access justice. Access to justice is a basic right in any advanced society but the sad fact is that a significant segment of society – not just the severely disadvantaged – simply cannot afford to exercise that right. Combined with his coding skills, and the idea that the legal industry needed some long overdue shaking up, Sean went ahead and spent a weekend staking out our current online presence. With some hard work and enthusiastic promotion by the Lawfunder team, we got some media attention and our first successful fundraising campaign – the rest is history in the making.
Please explain your business model.
At the moment we don’t make any money, other than from some generous donors who believe in our idea. Since the whole venture is basically a charitable social enterprise, and our ultimate objective is to improve access to justice, we don’t think it makes sense to charge a commission to community legal centres and their clients. The only fees we pass on are the ones charged by the credit card companies. This is a benefit not offered by similar non-legal crowdfunding platforms – most of them charge a commission on each donation.
We are however exploring a commercial litigation funding model whereby profit can be generated from accredited investors who wish to contribute funds and also appease their social conscience.
What are you working on right now and what are you most excited about in the next year?
We are currently operating at a loss, so eventually we will need to finance the venture to ensure that it stays alive for the benefit of the community – this is why we will be rolling out an investment model of crowdfunding, where donors can assess litigation causes based on its merits, and benefit from their show of support by collecting a share of the settlement proceeds. We’ve had a lot of interest from those in the industry regarding this model and we’re looking forward to seeing it implemented in the near future.
How do you make ideas happen?
We have great chemistry as a team. We know each other’s strengths and are considerate of our respective schedules. If anyone has an idea, we quickly talk or text it out, and whoever we feel should be responsible then takes over with the implementation. Having a good team with people you respect and appreciate is important, and can’t be faked or bought. We also like the adage that the only way to make ideas happen is by getting in there and doing it – albeit with thoughtfulness, thoroughness and grit. We appreciate that it’s easier said than done, though!
What role have mentors played in your business life?
Sean: I’m lucky in that I come from a large family of which various members have had varying levels of success in business. Being able to pick up the phone and bounce ideas off someone who has time for you is invaluable and something I take advantage of when needed (and it seems to be needed quite often!). Learning about others’ successes and failures has helped me learn the importance of strategy, planning, goals and luck.
Eunice: Recognising the role that my elders and superiors have played in my career is really important to me. I recently completed a cheesy project I read about on Business Insider where I wrote letters of gratitude to key people in my life who gave me a chance leading me to where I am now, or who simply act as people whose character and conduct I admire and wish to model some aspects of myself after. It was a rewarding exercise for me because I didn’t want them to be ignorant of my appreciation for their help, and the chance that I’ll get to thank them in a public acceptance speech like the Oscars one day is sort of slim.
What challenges have you faced when starting or growing a business/organisation in Australia?
Getting something off the ground is so exciting, but maintaining that level of energy is often a challenge. Both of us can get inundated with our day jobs or studies so the progress of the enterprise can ebb and flow significantly. It is also challenging to gauge public interest and create a following, even when the service or product you’re offering is of great benefit to a lot of people. With our humble budget, we can’t and don’t buy advertising or hundreds of Facebook likes, and we also don’t currently have big-name backers with deep pockets. We are big on integrity and attention to detail, so this slow and steady approach actually aligns a lot with our values, but it can make us a little impatient at times.
What is one idea you are willing to give away for free?
A coffee table book about coffee tables that turns into a coffee table.
What people/companies/organisations do you think are doing really cool stuff in your industry, in Australia at the moment?
Sean: Lawchoice Australia – the TripAdvisor of the legal industry which focuses on word of mouth reviews of lawyers guides the public as to which lawyer to engage. It also has over 400 Australian law firms subscribed to answer basic legal questions for free.
Eunice: In terms of social enterprises, I like Oscar Wylee’s business model of making a good-quality product at a reasonable price point, while maintaining a modern image and addressing a global health issue with their ‘I Care for Eyecare’ program. A youth-run organisation called IMPACT does good work broadcasting these kind of ventures and others like them. In the legal industry, I greatly admire the Clayton Utz pro bono practice, which is the largest in the world outside of the US, as well as the burgeoning association for tech-savvy and forward-thinking lawyers and students, The Legal Forecast.
What about internationally?
We love thrifty and ingenious ideas that solve pressing global problems like the drinkable book or Moser lamps, and we also admire Experiment, a crowdfunding platform like ours, but for scientific research instead of legal causes.
Is there a particular charity you’d like to support?
We are obviously big supporters of the work that Australia’s many community legal centres do for bridging that gap between the law and ordinary Australians needing a helping hand. Some good examples are Queensland’s very own QPILCH and YAC, who help the homeless and vulnerable youths among many others. We have also recently partnered with QAILS, the authority for all community legal centres in Queensland, which we are very proud of and excited about. Watch this space.
Sean volunteers as a foster carer for dogs from Working Breed Rehab, while Eunice has a particular interest in the protection of vulnerable and disadvantaged or abused children, so she sponsors victims of sex trafficking via Destiny Rescue, and foster children and their carers via The Pyjama Foundation.
Name 3 websites you would recommend to our readers.
- lawchoice.com.au – Lawchice is the TripAdvisor of the legal industry which focuses on word of mouth reviews of lawyers and has over 400 Australian law firms subscribed to answer basic legal questions for free.
- https://perma.cc – developed by the Harvard Law School Library, Perma.cc helps scholars, journals and courts create permanent links to the online sources so links never break.
- http://www.gizoogle.net – Gizoogle is Eunice’s homepage. She doesn’t believe in Google.
Are there opportunities for people to get involved with your idea (e.g. are you looking for funding, interns, marketing help)?
All of the above would be helpful, but right now we are really keen to just get the word out and raise our exposure to those beyond the legal industry. Our first campaign was a roaring success that raised 100% of its target in six days, and now we’re hungry for more meritorious legal causes we can crowdfund for. The more people that are aware of our service, then the more we are able to help and increase our impact. If you like our idea, please share it around J
What’s your favourite bar/café/restaurant?
Eunice: At the moment, I like the pastries from Chouquette in New Farm, and spicy dumplings from Happy Boy in Spring Hill. Pretty sure Sean’s would be McDonald’s or KFC, though.