This interview is episode 3 of The Control Room: Conversations for Growing Companies, an interview series with entrepreneurs and experts.
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Josh Beser: I am here with Basha Rubin. Basha is the co-founder and CEO of Priori Legal. Basha, maybe it makes sense just to start if you want to tell me a little bit about Priori.
Basha Rubin: Absolutely. Priori is a curated legal marketplace that connects SMBs and high growth start-ups with a network of vetted lawyers at competitive rates. So we’re working with businesses from one employee to 2,500 employees across five states – New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Texas and California.
Josh: Awesome. How did you start it? I guess, how and why did you start Priori? What’s the story behind starting a legal marketplace?
Basha: So when my co-founder Mirra Levitt and I were at Yale Law School together, we were friends and both were noticing a lot of the impediments, and for businesses and individuals, for that matter, to find, hire and work with lawyers in a cost effective and efficient way. And we thought there had to be a technology solution to it. So we started, after law school, Mirra was at a firm and I was working on Priori full-time to start to build a network of vetted lawyers. So we’ve always believed that one of the main values that we can drive is by creating a set of lawyers who meet a very high quality standard so that when a business needs to find legal help, they can rest assured that everyone they’re finding through us is excellent, and then can really focus on finding the best fit for their needs. So we built both the network and a technology solution that just made everything efficient and transparent. So you can put in your request, view different options, extensive profiles on lawyers, transparent pricing information on sort of hourly and fixed bases and then schedule calls and handle all billing and invoicing, just to make the experience simple and user friendly.
Josh: So you started right out of law school?
Basha: I guess, yes.
Josh: What did your friends say when you said you wanted to do a start-up instead of practicing law?
Basha: Everyone thought I was a little crazy, you know. It’s funny. I do feel that everything has kind of come full circle, where a lot of my classmates from law school are now leaving to join or found start-ups. But at the time, it was definitely an unconventional path. And I remember everyone sort of thinking that it was like a cute project that I was doing, while I figured out what I really wanted to do, as opposed to a real business, as in a real commitment. But, you know, I think the moment I remember perception changing was actually when Priori was featured in the New York Times. And all a sudden all these people who’ve been really skeptical and like not, you know, were all of a sudden, you know, realized that I was doing something real and that it might actually be permanent.
Josh: Was that moment validation for you personally? Or did you feel like you had decided or felt like you were on the right path before that, or…?
Basha: You know, I felt really that I was on the right path before that. Obviously when I, you know, when I first started working on this and also progressing along these very prestigious, regimented paths, I had some moments of self-doubt. But once we really started building the lawyer network in earnest and launched to the public, we started… we had so much validation from our users that we were addressing a real problem. And it was incumbent on us to address that problem well.
Josh: So you mentioned that you had moments of self-doubt. I think anybody that works on a start-up feels that way. How did you get through it?
Basha: You know, brute force.
Josh: What do you mean?
Basha: You know what? I’ve always been the kind of person that once I commit to something, I believe in doing it fully and totally. So both just forcing yourself to plow through and also by finding a community of entrepreneurs who are doing something similar. I really… if I have any regret from my early days, it’s that I slid in myself a little too much. And that both for me personally as well as the business, because I think I would have made more connections and figured more things out more. Two heads is better than one or whatever. I think I would have figured more things out, seen and learn from other people’s experiences much better had I immersed myself in a community very early on. But, you know, I am a slow learner, but not that slow. So eventually I figured that out and met a lot of people who were doing something similar and that was incredibly important.
Josh: How did you meet those people? Just generally, this is like the New York tech community or are these were people specifically working on different problems?
Basha: The New York tech community, friends of friends of friends, people that try to sell to me or I try to sell to them and then we became friends anyway. You know, as well as sort of meeting people through all the normal tech community events and female founders events and that sort of thing. But that community I think for almost anyone makes the process both more fun and easier.
Josh: Makes sense. Did you always want to start a company?
Basha: No. I always wanted to do something entrepreneurial. But I never imagined that I would start a company as young as I did.
Josh: Would you still do it now?
Basha: Yah, absolutely. I won’t do anything else. But I guess that’s the other thing, to harken back to your previous question when, how did I get through it, I got through it by imagining the other things that I could do and none of them seemed as awesome.
Josh: What were the other things you were imagining?
Basha: You know, actually practicing law.
Josh: Not that exciting?
Basha: There are some amazing legal jobs and occasionally, as people progress further in their careers, there are some pretty incredible jobs that would have been an alternate path but I can’t imagine anything else for me right now.
Josh: That makes sense. So walk me through it. You have this crazy idea that you’re going to start this company. You go straight out of law school to go start it. There is this period of time that you had some self-doubt but you fought through it with brute force, met a community of entrepreneurs, then you’re featured in the New York Times. Something has to happen to flip that switch. What happened and how did you get from having this idea that you had started on to being substantial enough to end up in the Times?
Basha: You know, when my two co-founders Mirra Levitt and Daniel Fischer joined full-time, everything accelerated at such a rapid clip. And I think really once we had that, we launched and we started getting feedback from users, both on the lawyer side and the client side. That was extremely positive and the business model hadn’t really been seen before around when we launched. There were obviously a couple of other companies that launched sort of in the same general time frame. People were really excited about a new way to do legal services. I think it’s an industry that is very antiquated. Everyone throws that around but is not very technology forward and people were just really excited about new solutions.
Josh: Do you think that’s changed in the last few years? So you started, I’m sorry, three years ago? Is that right?
Josh: So three years, it feels like there’s been more press about the legal industry getting a little bit more tech savvy. Do you feel like you’ve seen that and…?
Basha: There’s definitely a lot more players in the legal start-up space when there were when I first started working on the idea when I didn’t know of anybody. But… and I think it’s changing around the fringes. But the core of the industry is quite entrenched and has not, I think has not really been, for lack of a word, disrupted. I think there are people who are interested in doing things in new and innovative ways and there are more and more tools out there for them to do it. But in general, I think that the core of the industry is still a dinosaur that needs to be disrupted. But I think it’s going to happen.
Josh: What do you think has to change? Is there an event that you see or a series of events that’s going to push things over the edge to maybe modernize the industry a little bit more?
Basha: I think it’s a tipping point and a trend. I think that all data points to clients’ increasing frustration at lawyers’ billing models and management practices. And over the past decade, clients have increasingly, such as during the financial crisis, been pushing back on legal bills, and on the way in which law firms are managed. And I think that trend is just going to continue until it reaches a tipping point. And then we’re going to see a lot of disruption very very quickly.
Josh: That makes sense. So you’ve built a marketplace and marketplaces are I think notoriously hard. You have the chicken and egg, the customers and the supply. What are some of the challenges you faced specifically with that and how have you dealt with them?
Basha: You know, I would say it’s definitely a dialectic process, right? You need to get… we’ve always taken the view that we need these suppliers first. But we always, we try and work in concert with actual demand. So we’ll onboard some suppliers, wait for the demand to meet and keep on going back and forth so it’s relatively matched. But it’s certainly, there are definitely moments, there have been moments in the past two and a half years both ways, you know, where either we have too much supply and they’re frustrated they’re not getting enough business, or we have too much demand and not enough of a certain type of lawyer. It’s just something we are constantly monitoring in a pretty data driven way so we can do our best to stay ahead of that mismatch.
Josh: Is there any advice – not for legal marketplaces specifically, but for people who are dealing with marketplace products that you would have generally for somebody who is either starting one or working on one that’s in the early stages?
Basha: You know, I think the common wisdom is the right one, which is worry about stickiness and disintermediation, and think about sort of every scenario – how you can make your marketplace as sticky as possible. And when disintermediation is going to happen and how you can prevent it.
Josh: The disintermediation, sorry, meaning someone goes off of the marketplace and just goes directly to the…
Basha: Exactly, exactly. It’s a problem that different kinds of marketplaces have in different ways. For example, I don’t think Uber really has a disintermediation problem because you’re not going to meet one driver who can serve your needs as efficiently as all the drivers ever, right? But with a platform like Upwork for example I think they’ve really struggled with disintermediation because you meet one contractor, you liked their services and the contractor wants to take you off the platform because Upwork charges a fee. And so, you know, other than the assurance of having a third party there to mediate disputes, they have to figure out how they’re going to consistently add value so that it’s not more economic for everybody to get off the platform and cut them out, cut out the middle man.
Josh: But even this is a really old example, I’m thinking about like how eBay will have buyer protection. If you do a transaction outside of eBay directly with the seller, then you don’t have protection. That’s how they try to keep you on platform.
Basha: We do the exact same thing. Priori has a $10,000 guarantee and that’s one of the ways in which, you know, one of the reasons that clients continue to want to stay on the platform. If they stop using our billing system they can’t access the guarantee.
Josh: Got it. Got it. That makes sense. So you mention the Times. You’ve also written for Forbes and I think in some pretty high profile media stuff. Do you feel like that has mattered or had an impact for you?
Basha: Oh we joke that every time we do press, no matter what it is, we get hundreds of lawyers. You know, I do think it makes a really big difference in terms of just reputation, being able to go out there and say you’ve been featured in these places I think makes people less skittish about working with a new business. But you know I think press is really worth it depending on the type of company you are and also what you do with it, right? I think that with B2B companies, you get some press, you’re not going to get a hundred new clients tomorrow, but you can keep leveraging that press over a long period of time to build reputation.
Josh: That makes sense. So I’m guessing that the question, how does one get their company in the New York Times, is a relatively difficult one. But how does one write something for Forbes?
Basha: You know, I was… someone had seen my writing and referred me to an editor and they have a community of contributors and I was invited to participate which was a fantastic opportunity.
Josh: Cool, cool. Okay. So you’ve talked a lot about the company. Personally, what’s your biggest surprise that you’ve had since you founded Priori? What’s the thing that you didn’t expect to happen that has happened?
Basha: Oh this is a silly thing and one that anyone who had worked for longer than I did before starting a company probably would have known, but a lot of my days now are spent with management and HR questions rather than actually digging into to substance of the work, right? It’s about strategy and managing, which for a control freak like me can be a little challenging.
Josh: You mention being a control freak. At some point you have to start delegating stuff. Has that been tough?
Basha: Yah, it’s definitely been something, a challenge for me, but I found, you know, it’s really about building a right team. And as soon as we had, we have an amazing team in place now, just really across the board extremely strong. I couldn’t be happier. And once you have good people and you see what they can do, it gets a little bit easier. I think at first you’re hiring your first person, the anxiety can be more.
Josh: Do you have any examples? Was there something that somebody on your team did that you said, okay, now I can turn something over to them? Like now, I trust them enough to just run with it.
Basha: You know, I think it’s just about… I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. But it’s about, just like producing really high quality work over a long period of time, and seeing that they can do it without me being involved and seeing that sometimes they do an even better job because I have my fingers in a thousand pots, and they can focus fully on one and actually do a much better job than I can.
Josh: Makes sense. Okay, so we were talking earlier before we went on about FlexCounsel a little bit and I am going to admit that I received an email from you guys today about FlexCounsel. And I don’t really know what it is. I’m going to let you tell me what it is. Tell me all about it.
Basha: FlexCounsel is a new monthly subscription offering that Priori launched just today. We’re launching in beta right now. And the need that we saw was clients… there’s certainly a need for recurring monthly packages, and that’s something that a lot of different law firms and a lot of different companies have done, right? You know, you pay $1,000 a month, you get X amount of legal, blah, blah, blah. So what we’ve been seeing is clients who were using multiple lawyers in our platform every single month, and we wanted to create a subscription offering that enabled them to do that, and so we can really be a clearinghouse. So you get pretty deep discounts on packages of ours that you can use across different lawyers in our network. So if you have an 8-hour package, you can use 5 on a corporate lawyer, 1 on tax, 1 on employment and 1 on IP at an extremely low rate for the subscription. So you’re paying the equivalent of somewhere between $130 and $150 an hour for lawyers who typically through the network are charging usually north of $300.
Josh: So why would the lawyer sign up for it?
Basha: For a lot of lawyers, regularity matters. They want to lock in clients who are using them every month. They have predictable income. And they want clients to get comfortable with them and use them as their outside counsel. So they’ll use them even more when a larger need arises.
Josh: That makes sense. I guess a lot the solos and small firms folks that I’ve met, having regular hours is probably one of the biggest issues, right? You need to know that you have a base. So that’s interesting. And then, just walk me through that relationship a little bit more. So you pay for a flat rate number of hours a month and then is there any involvement with Priori in selecting the lawyers or doing any quality control or anything? Or is it essentially, you’re matching with them and the GC or the company is managing the direct relationship with the lawyer after the match is made.
Basha: Well, to begin with, every lawyer in the Priori network is pre-vetted, so you are at first working from the sort of very elite pool of lawyers. We were extremely rigorous about our admissions process, more so than anyone else out there. And from that, we feel confident that all of the lawyers in our network will be fantastic. But beyond that, we really, the lawyers who sign up for FlexCounsel are ones who are really excited about the model. We don’t want someone participating in this who doesn’t understand the value to their practice. So these are lawyers who are all excited about providing services in this way. And then we hand select lawyers, like we do for any matter, for your FlexCounsel request based on your need. So you can add as many members to your legal team as you need and then leverage that on ongoing basis. And of course all the billing and invoicing happens through Priori as well, just to keep things simple and streamlined.
Josh: So you launched on beta today. That’s exciting. That sounds very interesting. So a couple of other things I want to ask you and I’ll let you go, because I know we’ve got a time thing. First is… I mean a time thing because we’ve talked for 20 minutes. I always like to ask who you think is at the top of your field or someone that you look up to. Not just necessarily like a super famous person but somebody who’s doing something at least in the same universe that you’re working in and you think is just doing an awesome job in it.
Basha: You know, I always thought picking specific people, but one of the companies that we really admire is GLG in sort of creating an expert high quality network.
Josh: Why? What is it about them that’s interesting?
Basha: I think they have been able to scale quality expertise in a way that I’ve seen very few other companies have been able to do.
Josh: Okay. Well, and then the other thing that I’ll just like to know is that is there anything that you’re listening to or reading right now that you think people should know about. Podcasts or books or articles or anything that you’ve read recently.
Basha: Does it have to be about business? I’m really bad at reading about business, but I do read a lot.
Josh: No. Whatever you like.
Basha: I’m super into The Last Kingdom. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.
Josh: Tell me about it.
Basha: It’s a BBC America series that… the series is good but the books are excellent. It’s about the Viking invasion of England in the 800s but it’s spectacular. I read 5 books over Christmas. And then I read the John Overing books, the new John Overing book, which was okay. And then I read a book called Among the 10,000 Things, which was also okay. But The Last Kingdom.
Josh: The Last Kingdom is the one that…
Basha: You got to check it out.
Josh: Nice. Okay, cool. Cool. Anything else you want to add before we go?
Basha: No I think that’s it. This was a lot of fun. Thank you for inviting me to participate.
Josh: Sure. Thanks for joining me. Alright, Basha. Take care.
Basha: Okay. Bye.