Attorney James Jones Jr. and his wife, Kristina, believe that it shouldn’t be intimidating to hire an attorney and that affordable legal help should be widely accessible.
Apparently, lots of other people think so, too: Their startup, Court Buddy, won the People’s Pick in the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge FIU Track.
Court Buddy is an online legal matchmaking system that pairs consumers and businesses with attorneys based on their budgets. It gives people, regardless of background or financial situation, access to a legal system and offers a-la-carte legal services at a flat rate.
James, who had been practicing law for about 10 years, said that last August the idea was born out of his frustration over having to turn down potential clients because they couldn’t afford the rates or the retainer. Some made too much money to be helped by an organization like Dade Legal Aid. Other people were intimidated by the process of finding an attorney. He asked Kristina, a freelance art director and FIU alumnus, to join him, and together they began researching the concept and launched a market survey. Convinced of the widespread need, they hired a team of freelance engineers to create courtbuddy.com and went live in January.
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“A person no longer has to stress over not knowing how much an attorney’s hourly rates will cost them or how to get the money for an attorney’s high retainer. And on the other side, attorneys who are trying to survive in an over-saturated legal market now have an easier way to find clients by getting matched with a person or business who has a pending case or legal matter,” the couple said in their plan.
The couple focused first on South Florida, and made some changes in its cost structure along the way. Matches made so far have been for cases such as bankruptcy, traffic court, immigration and trademarks. To get the word out to consumers, they have been handing out fliers with free tips at courthouses, as well as using the usual social media strategies. But they admit it is a challenge for a bootstrapping startup without an advertising budget.
Attracting lawyers has been easier: Court Buddy now has about 25 attorney members, and “we field eight to nine inquiries a day,” said James, CEO. James opened his own law firm in 2012: “That’s how I can relate to the sole practitioner.”
A couple of weeks ago Court Buddy opened the service up to other parts of Florida; a nationwide rollout is in the longer-range plans.
The feisty Court Buddy, a finalist in the Challenge’s FIU Track, was in second place in the People’s Pick early last week but then fell back in the pack. Kristina, Court Buddy’s president, said that when she received last Friday morning’s update, with two days to go, that Court Buddy was in third place, it was a kick in the pants. “We contacted everyone we knew and asked them to help,” said Kristina. Even her aunts joined the campaign to get out the vote.
It worked: Court Buddy drew 2,168 votes to win in the FIU track and also had the most votes in the contest.