Dorna Moini. Photo by Earnie Grafton/ABA Journal
When Dorna Moini was an associate at Sidley Austin from 2015 to 2017, she welcomed the opportunity to do pro bono work. But the repetitive nature of the job—filling out applications for domestic violence restraining orders—seemed like a waste when her firm was charging hundreds of dollars an hour for her time.
“Some of the initial tasks I did were rote, like handwriting declarations or repeated entry of information on multiple forms, and I felt this wasn’t the best allocation of my time,” says Moini, 30, who graduated from the University of Southern California Gould School of Law in 2012.
So Moini came up with a way to automate the form-filling. Working with software engineer Michael Joseph—now her chief technology officer—she developed a software tool they now call Documate. (It was previously called HelpSelf Legal.) It permits attorneys to create their own online forms that guide users through the process of completing them. They can be used for filling out any kind of legal form—name changes, business formation, even intake of new clients—that doesn’t require a lot of analysis or carry a lot of risk. The goal is to free up lawyers for the tasks that require human supervision.
Moini and Joseph had originally planned to make Documate a tool exclusively for civil legal aid groups. Moini also hoped to target those people who earn too much to qualify for legal aid services, but still can’t afford a traditional lawyer. “There’s a whole segment of the middle class that’s being left out of legal services altogether, but document and workflow automation allows a lawyer to be able to provide those same services at a lower cost,” she says.
However, when the project got coverage from Robert Ambrogi’s LawSites, it attracted a huge amount of interest, including from people in private practice. Documate doesn’t charge legal aid organizations for its software, but it sells to all sizes and types of private-practice firms and even to nonlegal organizations.
One client and fellow legal tech startup using Documate in a for-profit way is Hello Divorce, a Bay Area company that combines guidance for doing parts of a California divorce yourself with traditional legal services. Founder Erin Levine says Documate is the anchor of Hello Divorce’s guided interview process, which helps clients fill out forms they can file in court. Having that tool makes it cheaper and easier for nonlawyers to handle the basics on their own. Documate also uses Docassemble as a back-end tool.
“Dorna’s software is a game-changer for pro se [parties],” says Levine, also a Bay Area family lawyer. “It’s one very important tool in expanding access to justice because it enables self-represented parties to effectively complete the complicated and confusing legal forms required in many consumer-facing areas of law.”
Moini didn’t set out to be a legal technology entrepreneur. In fact, she went to the University of Southern California Gould School of Law planning to work in international human rights, an interest that grows out of her family’s Iranian origins. She spent four months clerking at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague after graduation.
But she doesn’t regret spending time at large law firms, and with Documate, she’s gone international in a different way. “[There’s] a lawyer who’s building the LegalZoom of Denmark on our platform, a legal aid organization … in Malaysia and a Canadian professor who is working with her students to create a variety of free tools for the public,” she says. “People are hearing about us from unexpected places.”
This article first appeared in the September-October 2019 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline “Escape From Rote.”