In Silicon Valley, there’s a vocabulary of asceticism: “ramen-profitable” and “bootstrapping” are terms to live by for young companies that need to make every dollar count. It’s hard to scrimp on legal fees, however. Incorporating a company or raising venture capital requires professional legal advice that can cost thousands of dollars.
Jay Mandal, the former lead mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer for Apple (AAPL), thinks he can help. He quit his lucrative corporate gig in 2009 to found LawPivot, a Q&A website that matches cash-sensitive startups with the lawyers who might be able to help them. Companies visit the site and pose questions, such as whether they need to trademark a brand or how to minimize liability from negative user reviews.
Behind the scenes, LawPivot’s algorithms funnel the questions to its roster of lawyers based on expertise and quality of past responses. For now, companies can ask three questions per month for free, though LawPivot plans to charge a subscription fee of $80 a month.
That’s a deal, compared with most lawyers’ hourly rates. “I use it to supplement my current legal counsel,” says Ajay Kamat, the 26-year-old co-founder of Micromobs, a collaboration software startup in Mountain View, Calif., that has used the site for six months. “I easily saved thousands.” Lawyers don’t make any money for answering questions, but they do get leads on potential clients. Yusuf Safdari, senior counsel at the Palo Alto office of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, says he scored three paying clients by answering 50 questions through LawPivot in the past year. “It’s great, the time efficiency,” Safdari says. “Instead of me going to fancy events to find clients, clients are finding me.” More than 800 lawyers and 1,200 startups have used the site.
Mandal, 37, is a fourth-generation lawyer whose grandfather served as a justice in a state supreme court in India. After graduating from law school at the University of California, Berkeley, he spent six years working in corporate law at firms including Pillsbury Winthrop before joining Apple. He’s also a startup veteran: In 2003 he co-founded IPpro, which lets U.S. companies outsource patent work to lawyers in India, where it can be completed for a fraction of the cost. “I consider myself an entrepreneur first and lawyer second,” Mandal says.
Mandal lived the ramen-profitable life while building LawPivot. After quitting Apple, he and co-founder Nitin Gupta recruited four engineers. The six holed up in a room above the garage of Mandal’s home in Fremont, Calif., where his wife, Anamika, kept everyone fed with Indian snacks during all-nighters. After raising $600,000 from investors, including Google’s (GOOG) venture arm, late last year, Mandal moved his team into office space in Mountain View. “My wife misses them,” he says. “They were there all the time.”