(Photo of Courtroom5 founders Debra Sloane, left, and Sonja Ebron by Randy Piland/ABA Journal)
Even though Courtroom5 co-founder Sonja Ebron has a PhD in electrical engineering, she still felt out of her depth the first time she represented herself in court.
“I was shocked because I thought I was pretty smart,” says Ebron, adding that on her middle-class income, she couldn’t afford a lawyer after she was sued in a debt collection case. “It’s like there’s a rule book somewhere that the average person doesn’t even know exists.”
Over the years, Ebron returned pro se to court with her Courtroom5 co-founder and wife, Debra Slone. They gradually learned how to navigate civil procedure. Intent on demystifying the process for people representing themselves, Ebron, who also has a background in artificial intelligence; and Slone, who has a PhD in library and information science, launched Courtroom5 as a subscription-based platform in 2017. “We realized we both knew how to represent ourselves capably in court,” Ebron says. “We had seen tons of people who weren’t able to do that. And so we just decided to solve the problem.”
An estimated 30 million people go without representation in state courts each year, according to a 2019 survey by the Justice Lab at Georgetown University Law Center. Legal Services Corp.’s April 2022 Justice Gap report suggests that low-income Americans either get no legal help or not enough for 92% of their civil legal problems. The report states many civil legal needs are intertwined with protecting basic needs, including housing, education, health care, income and safety.
When it comes to addressing the justice gap, Courtroom5 is a drop in the ocean. But Ebron and Slone, neither of whom practices law, believe their tool can help.
Ebron says Courtroom5 stands apart because of the breadth of training and resources it provides on civil procedure. Subscribers have access to unbundled legal services if they want a lawyer for a specific issue in their case.
Ken Friedman, a former LegalZoom executive, chairs Courtroom5’s board of advisors. According to him, Ebron and Slone’s “idea isn’t necessarily new,” but the couple has both the passion and the firsthand experience to succeed. “They understand the fundamental unfairness that can exist in our legal system, and they’re not going to stop fighting to fix it,” Friedman says.
Courtroom5 helps subscribers build an argument, reference existing laws and create legal documents to file in court. The platform offers tools to people in divorce, debt collection, probate, foreclosure, medical malpractice, civil rights and personal injury cases.
Ebron declines to say how many subscribers use the platform, which offers a limited free version and a plan for one case that is priced at $75 a month, but says more than 3,000 cases have been handled.
Slone touts Courtroom5’s argument builder, a tool that gives subscribers the information they need to craft arguments in support of their claims. “It’s not perfect. It needs maintenance sometimes,” Slone says. “But I think it helps people have a better case or outcome.”
Ebron says the reason many startups fail is because of disputes between teams or co-founders. The couple has been married for 22 years. Ebron says they have a shorthand that helps them through ups and downs.
“We have our disputes, no doubt about it,” Ebron says. “But we also have a structure where we can work those out more successfully than some other founding teams.”
Price is a sticking point. “This is my third entrepreneurial venture. I’m very sensitive to the business side of the project,” Ebron says. “I’m the bad guy trying to raise the price. I still think it’s too cheap for what we offer.”
Sonja Ebron and Debra Slone of Courtroom5
Uzoma Orchingwa and Gabriel Saruhashi of Ameelio