I am very excited to interview Legal Shapers’ CEO Petru Balasa, the winner of the 2019 Global Legal Hackathon. Based in Bucharest, Romania, Petru and his team created Lawrelai, the first AI-based legal advisor to travelers, easily accessible via Facebook Messenger.
Lawrelai provides global coverage and offers free up-to-date information and documents for common legal problems while traveling abroad. And if you’re in immediate need of counsel while traveling, Lawrelai offers personalized legal assistance for a fee through its verified local legal professionals.
Mary Juetten: When did you start?
Petru Balasa: We started our project on February 23, 2019, on the second day of the Global Legal Hackathon (the national phase). We brainstormed a lot before committing to one idea, but when Lawrelai came up, we were sold! Who wouldn’t want to press a button and have access to legal advice, fast and almost free? And to have a lawyer nearby, available at any time, to help you solve your legal issues?
Juetten: What problem are you solving?
Balasa: Twenty percent of the 1,200 people we interviewed had legal issues when traveling abroad. That means you have a one-in-five chance to lose your ID papers, have your passport stolen, have issues with your driving license, breach local traditions with legal consequences and many more similar issues.
Where do you even start? You don’t know the language, local legislation or any lawyers nearby, you’re most likely on a budget, your partner is panicking, your kids are hungry, the trip is ruined.
Lawrelai stands for Law-related-AI and is a chatbot that solves all of these problems. Most of the legal issues a tourist may encounter abroad can be solved for free. Using Natural Language Processing and Artificial Intelligence algorithms, Lawrelai identifies if the issue is more complicated and notifies the user to pay a small fee for additional information. When the issue is more serious and exceeds the free database of legal information, Lawrelai puts the user in contact with a local lawyer nearby. Both the user and the lawyer pay Lawrelai a small fee at this point.
Considering the fact that we are dealing with a growing market of 1.4 billion tourists each year, the problem we are solving is not only global but also exponential.
Juetten: How do you help improve access to justice for consumers?
Balasa: Lawrelai is just a few taps away for everyone with internet access. It doesn’t just improve access to justice but also helps users prevent undesirable situations. There are many things a user wouldn’t even think about. Lawrelai facilitates exploration of foreign countries from a legal standpoint.
Its free component is a pioneering act on our side, as until now, there are no free legal services regarding laws in foreign countries. This contributes to facilitating access for consumers to proper justice even in a foreign jurisdiction. Apart from that, consumers benefit from direct access to a professional especially experienced on their specific legal issue, so that no more time is wasted until the consumer identifies the appropriate legal services provider for its immediate needs.
Juetten: What are some of the specific use cases or scenarios you can share on how consumers can leverage your company or solution?
Balasa: Lawrelai represents a gateway for building trust between different people with different cultural and legal backgrounds. That is why any consumer’s story is integrated in Lawrelai’s conceptual knowledge and thus extending our database with in-depth information and actual updated responses to a wide range of legal issues which may arise.
For example, if a consumer runs into a legal issue related to littering public spaces and Lawrelai initially provides the answer comprising the amount of the fine available that certain day, its answer is updated in order to reflect the legal changes implemented in that state, so that the consumer is well informed throughout his journey in a foreign country.
Also, in case the consumer enters into a hectic legal situation which could not be foreseen by our legal team due to objective reasons, the consumer’s story is documented internally and the response is integrated in the app for the benefit of future users. For example, in certain states with a lesser transparent justice system, the official update of the legal system is not as transparent as it should be. In these cases, if a user encounters a serious and new legal matter, the user’s situation and the corresponding response is updated within Lawrelai, so that future users may be legally protected. Thus, both the user community and Lawrelai grow together.
Juetten: What are you doing to help the larger legal tech movement boost access to justice?
Balasa: Awareness is the keyword. Both end users and service providers need to open their minds to the opportunities and ease of access that technology brings.
Juetten: Why do you care about access to justice?
Balasa: The justice system is inherently attached to the individual and it is meant to serve the needs of the people in terms of ensuring adequate means for protecting their rights and ensuring that legal obligations are met. And we care about people. That’s how Lawrelai started. In past years we’ve noticed an increase in news about people ending up jailed in foreign countries. Not all laws are obvious and not knowing one can get you in a lot of trouble. We are travelers ourselves and believe access to justice should be just a few taps away no matter where you find yourself. Access to justice is not effective if it does not provide simple and accessible legal information to citizens in need. That is why we believe it was necessary to create a new way to provide legal advice, in a manner oriented towards the citizen’s understanding.
Juetten: Who are your customers and how do you find them?
Balasa: We identified two customer profiles:
Proactive users – the planners, the control freaks, the people who just don’t like leaving things into the hands of destiny and who therefore prepare beforehand for any trip they might be taking.
Reactive users – who run into unforeseen legal issues during their holiday, and who are driven by strong emotions and pressure, given the urgency of their pain points.
Our customer acquisition plan includes social media (Facebook, Instagram), travel influencers and bloggers, ad campaigns, travel communities and other partners.
Juetten: How did past projects and/or experience help with this new project?
Balasa: The team has vast experience in both of the project’s main components: Legal and IT. Successful or not, past projects help the team develop multiple skills in other domains such as business, marketing, and social media. Lawrelai is the sum of all that made up its team members. We believe that things would’ve been different if we haven’t been so curious and keen to learn and grow as human beings.
Juetten: Who is on your team?
Balasa: Our 5 Co-Founders:
Roxana Pistolea, Lawyer la Clifford Chance Badea, Co-Founder & CEO Lawrelai
Roxana Mihaela Catea, Senior Associate la Țuca Zbârcea & Asociații, Co-Founder & CLO Lawrelai
Tudor Colțan, Senior Associate la Suciu Popa, Co-Founder & CMO Lawrelai
Eduard Mirică, Game Developer, Co-Founder & CFO Lawrelai
Petruș Bălașa, Full-stack developer @ AVstore.ro, Co-Founder & CTO Lawrelai
Juetten: Did you raise money?
Balasa: We are in the process of raising money. We are actively looking for early-stage investors and partners. As key partners, we focus on finding travel agencies and insurance companies. Both the key partners and we can leverage Lawrelai’s utility. Finding the right initial investors and partners is the key to any start-up’s future.
Juetten: Startups are an adventure — what’s your favorite startup story?
Balasa: Apart from being adventurous, the road from having one brilliant idea to developing it into a successful business is paved with all sorts of obstacles. The company who may get extra points for creativity in organizing its business and surpassing even some legal setbacks along the way is actually Uber, since it identified a huge individual need for better transportation means and acted in an adaptive manner when issues regarding the lack of legal framework governing peer rides were raised.
Juetten: How do you measure success and what is your favorite success story?
Balasa: Success means changing the world for the better, in our vision. If you engage technology in order to serve mankind, as we intend to do with Lawrelai, success is not just a target but will be a palpable effect of your actions. The criteria for how to measure success is how many people you impact in a positive manner
There are many success stories which inspire us and give us the strength to believe in our dreams. One of the favorite success stories we can think of is that of Walt Disney, who was fired at 22 for not being creative enough and went on to be recognized worldwide for his unparalleled animations that still bring joy to children and adults alike.
Juetten: Any tips to add for early-stage founders?
Balasa: Find a powerful value proposition. Strip off your business idea of any unnecessary content, until is simple enough that everybody understands it. Find the right co-founders, because it is a crucial aspect in building a successful team because without a strong growth mindset, the members can’t overcome the inevitable challenges that occur during the development.
Juetten: And of course, any IP horror stories to share (they can be anonymous)?
Balasa: Not sure if this goes under IP horror stories category, but we had an issue about the project name. We like to consider it a happy accident. Our first take was to name it “Lawra”. This is the name we participated with at our national phase of the Global Legal Hackathon. Afterward, we discovered that Lawra is trademarked almost all over the place, so we started to brainstorm new ideas. Then we started searching for female names with “law” in them and we came with the idea to mix “Law Related AI” into “Lawrelai”. Boom! We got a new name that was problem free and sounded awesome. That’s a happy accident that taught us that each challenge is an opportunity if you have the right mindset.
Juetten: What’s your long-term vision?
Balasa: We envision a world where Lawrelai is available to anyone curious to discover new local traditions with a potential legal impact or to deepen their knowledge of the rules governing a different society which they are visiting or planning to visit. Our vision is based on strong ethical values, such as lawfulness, transparency, trustworthiness, and responsibility, which is reflected in how Lawrelai works, in the local professionals selected by us to contribute to our project and ultimately, in the manner in which Lawrelai treats the individual who requests legal information.
Wow, what a whirlwind for these winners. We look forward to seeing what comes next. #onwards.