Jack West was a third-year law student with a post-graduation job lined up when the entrepreneurial bug hit him. He was working for an attorney on a per-project basis helping out with legal tasks whenever the lawyer needed extra help. He wasn’t making much do it, but he still considered himself lucky to have found this opportunity—which came by way of a law professor offhandedly mentioning it to him. And that’s when he realized there had to be a better way to fill this vital need.
“Everyone knows that students need to gain some real experience outside of the classroom to become useful and competent lawyers,” he says. “However, law schools are notorious for producing graduates steeped in academia but who don’t have a clue about the mechanics of actually practicing law.”
So he cofounded Book-It Legal, a technology platform that makes it easier for law students to find flexible work opportunities and for attorneys to have a better, faster and more affordable way to have students jump on their projects when they need the help. Attorneys pick the price they are willing to pay to have their project completed, and students decide whether they want to apply for the work or not. It’s a free market, so if an attorney lowballs the price of the project, it’s unlikely they will receive many applications. The company generates revenue by charging the attorney a service fee based on the project amount they offer students. Its headquarters are at Birmingham’s Innovation Depot.
“From Uber to Airbnb to Upwork, people are enjoying the benefits of an on-demand economy, and I don’t see any reason why the legal profession should miss out,” he says.
We sat down with West, who is getting ready to be a lot busier as he and his team, which includes cofounder Walker Beauchamp, start the Velocity Accelerator program at Innovation Depot. We wanted to find out more about their startup journey.
We’re always interested in the etymology of startup names, so what’s the origin of yours? How did you come up with it, and what does it mean to you?
To “book” a class in law school is to make the highest grade in that class. Some schools call that achievement by different names, but the majority of students and attorneys know what “booking” a class means. We wanted to connote high performance and excellence, so “Book-It Legal” seemed appropriate. And there is a secondary meaning of attorneys and students being able to “book” a project as you would “book” a flight or a hotel room. You could even find a tertiary meaning in the sense that “book-it” can mean to hurry up, which is one of the advantages of using our service. Attorneys usually receive multiple applications from students within a few hours of posting their project and can have a student start working the same day. The law is a deadline-driven profession, and being able to “book-it” and get the research done prior to filing that next brief is appealing.
When did you officially launch and where do things stand with the company right now? Is the service active? Who’s using it? How will you make money on it? Where do you see things in one year, three years, five years?
The service has been active since we released our beta back in September. We’re excited to be moving to a full release at the end of the month and opening the platform up to a wider user base. The beta period was certainly a success since we were able to get actionable feedback from students and attorneys about what the software does well and what we can improve. One of our goals during Velocity is to find the best distribution channels and marketing methods to put our service in front of many more lawyers. The ultimate goal is to have a nationwide community of students and attorneys on the platform. We believe we can reach this goal in the next 18-24 months.
You’re getting ready to start the Velocity Accelerator program in a few weeks. What are you feeling right now? Excited? Nervous? Something else? What are your goals with the program?
As we enter the Velocity program, we are feeling excited and grateful for this opportunity to be around other ambitious entrepreneurs building cool companies. It’s inspiring to be around them, and we know that the program overall will help us push ourselves even harder, to move faster. It will also expose us to new mentors and potential investors.
You’re a lawyer by trade and now you’re a tech founder. Is that hard? What makes it less hard? Talk about the challenges of being a non-tech founder and what are your best tips for making it work.
That’s a great question, and one I’m constantly struggling with. While I still use the skills I learned during law school and while practicing, I’ve had to embrace the fact that we are a software company. Fortunately, I’m working with excellent developers who have helped me learn about the process of software development, and I’m attempting to pick up as much technical knowledge as I can. I’ve been heavily involved in creating the software, from writing user stories to QA’ing the product.
Being down at Innovation Depot and getting to interact daily with talented engineers has helped me out immensely. My best tips are: (1) embrace the sea change that is becoming a founder of a tech company; (2) do everything you can to meet the best technical talent and then bring on someone technical as a partner—do not be stingy with equity if you’re building software and have no clue how software is actually built; (3) learn enough to be dangerous—the more you can actually have a conversation with technical folks, the better your chance of recruiting them.
What about starting up is harder than you thought it would be? And how are you overcoming that? Anything easier than anticipated? If so, what?
I never had any illusions that starting a startup would not be insanely difficult. And I haven’t been disappointed—it’s just as hard as they say. And just as much of a rollercoaster. Keeping myself sane while working all the time and still trying to have a personal life is tough. Exercise and meditation help. Nothing is easier than anticipated, at least in my case. I hope something turns out to be, though! I will say that my passion for what we are doing grows every day, and that makes it easier.
What’s your involvement in the local startup community and why do you choose (or not choose) to participate? What benefit does it give you as a founder? As a human?
The startup community in Birmingham is blossoming, and we wouldn’t be where we are without it. I really didn’t know anything about startups 11 months ago when I quit my job, and I’d know a lot less than I do now if it hadn’t been for the amazing community here, the mentors who have been so generous with their time and resources. We owe a great debt to the people in Birmingham who have put in a lot of hard work over the last 5-10 years to create the ecosystem that startups need to thrive.
Startups can be isolating. I did the home-office thing for months. As a human, as a social being, meeting a whole new swath of characters in the tech and startup community has been a lot of fun!