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Brad Clark: A Kentucky Criminal Defense Attorney Pursues Expungements With Conviction…and Technology

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screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-9-23-17-amAt last month’s TBD Conference, I wound up in a break out session with Kentucky criminal defense attorney, Brad Clark. Not only did Brad open his own law practice a few months before, but at the same time, he launched the Unconvicted app that helps the firm quickly gather information from users to determine their eligibility for expunging their criminal record under Kentucky’s new law — which (not coincidentally) went into effect just a month after Clark’s firm opened.  

So why did I choose to profile Brad? It’s not that he developed an app; I’ve profiled lawyers who have done that. No — what captured my attention about Brad’s firm is that it represents a new business model that seamlessly marries a bespoke law practice with a scaleable, marketable technology tool that makes it easier to serve more clients better and more efficiently and expands access to justice. Brad’s app is great, but the real “killer app” here is the hybrid model that melds product and service — and that’s why Brad is a MyShingle Shingular Sensation.

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-9-34-32-amWelcome to MyShingle. Can you tell our readers a little bit about your practice – where you are located and what types of law your practice focuses on?

I am the founder of Clark Law PLLC, which is based in Lexington, Kentucky, but right now we handle expungements throughout most of the state. The firm consists of myself and my associate, Carolyn Allen. From time-to-time we contract with other attorneys, though we are moving away from using contractors. We are a technology company and a law firm that creates web apps to solve consumer-facing legal problems with a focus on access to justice. Our first product, Unconvicted.com helps Kentuckians determine whether they are eligible to clear portions of their criminal records under a new felony expungement law.  We provide free eligibility screenings to anyone that uses the web app, and from there, offer for-pay services that range from unbundled document creation all the way up to full-representation with attorney house calls. We soft-launched April 15thto coincide with the governor signing the bill into law. I quit my job on May 15th, and we have been open full time since.

What made you decide to start your own firm – and to develop a technology product?

I started the firm partially in response to the passing of the new expungement law, and partially out of a desire to have more control over my life. I knew that there would be thousands of people who could benefit from this new law, and that the final version of the bill had become so complicated that it would be difficult for most non-lawyers to understand and benefit from it. I believe that expungement should be an automatic process once the criteria has been met, and I wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to get expungements. On a more personal level, I had been working as a capital defender in state court, handling aggravated murder cases, and I needed to switch gears for a bit.

What kind of work experience did you have prior to starting your firm?

I worked for five years as trial-level public defender, then I took a job with the Capital Trial Branch of the Public Defender office that I worked for a little over a year. I tried about twenty cases to jury in my time at the PD’s office at all levels from misdemeanors to murder, I tried two murder cases to verdict as lead counsel, the last of which resulted in a full acquittal. After the acquittal, we petitioned to have the record expunged.

What made you decide to choose a niche area like expungements?

Prior to July of this year, there were limited expungement options in Kentucky.  The new law that went into effect in July vastly expanded the number of crimes that are eligible for expungement, including some low-level felonies. It also is an area where you really have the opportunity to help people in a transformative way. Vacating and expunging a felony conviction restores fundamental rights and creates new opportunities.The combination of pent up demand and the ability to change lives seemed like a great opportunity.

How does your firm’s app help clients with the expungement process?  Is it like Legal Zoom for expungements?

Clients simply log on to Unconvicted.com and can access the app from their browser on a PC, tablet, or smart phone. The app asks a series of questions using plain language. Depending on the answers the client gives, they are asked different questions. It models the conversation path that an attorney would have during an in-person consultation. Once the survey is complete, the app will make a determination whether the person is a strong candidate for expungement or unlikely to be eligible.

The app itself does not make any actual legal judgments, even in cases where the person is likely disqualified from seeking an expungement. I wanted to avoid the ethical issues inherent in having an app make those determinations, and frequently potential clients are mistaken about their own records—in ways that both make them eligible and disqualify them. It’s sad, but many mistakenly believe they have been convicted of a felony. Many people also think that they haven’t been convicted of a felony and have been. Our solution is to use the data generated by the app to perform our own screening of the client data in the online court database. Everyone that completes the informational component of the app also gets a free attorney screening of their record. It’s a form of lead generation, but it also simplifies intake. If clients do qualify and retain us, we are able to use the client-entered data to complete the required forms using our document automation system.

As far as Legal Zoom, we share some superficial similarities to Legal Zoom, but the value of our service isn’t that it creates forms for you, it’s that a lawyer reviewed the forms you helped create. Most people can fill out 95% or more of a court form correctly. What we sell is the peace of mind that you know that it is 100% correct, and that if something does go wrong, you have an experienced advocate on your side to fix it.

At what point did you decide to develop the app – and how was the project executed?  Do you have a development background or did you outsource?

I actually had some development background. I did some freelance web design work in the late 90’s and early 2000s. It had been over 10 years since I wrote a line of code. Surprisingly, a lot came back to me. I developed the entire website myself, and have even branched out into doing more of the back-end stuff. The design, branding, and development work on the site was all mine. I did use several templates and off-the-shelf software-as-service products to get to the result we did, but in all, the licenses for using those services allowed me to get the product to market in the timeline I needed, and with 95% of the functionality I wanted at a price vastly below what a developer would have charged.

Has the app made it possible to handle more cases? And do you think it has improved the service that you provide – or are there quality control or other issues the cause problems and require oversight?

Without a doubt we have been able to handle more cases. We have screened over 1500 clients for potential expungements since May and those that qualify convert at a high rate.  I think it improves the value of our service by allowing us to offer our service at a lower price. Our biggest challenge has been keeping up with demand. Several times we’ve gotten behind on our schedule for screening clients because of volume. It’s definitely disappointing any time you can’t offer the level of service you want, even for a free screening. We have to prioritize current clients over prospective clients, even if it leads to us missing sales. The good news is that no current clients have suffered. Our turnaround time on phone calls and emails has been great. We’ve filed almost 150 expungements, and dozens have come back and we have yet to have one denied.

It appears that some of the initial rush has slowed down now though, and having another attorney trained and up to speed should give me time to focus on improving the quality of the prospective-client-experience.

What kind of feedback have you received on the app from clients and other lawyers?

Everyone has been very supportive of it. Clients like it because it saves them a trip downtown and the hassle of missing work and having to find parking. Other lawyers have been very supportive for the most part. I think everyone can get behind the cause of helping people get a second chance. Even attorneys who could be considered competitors appreciate that it is innovative.

I noticed that your website offers different tiers of service – a complete DIY option or lawyer-enabled option. Are you able to share the proportion of clients choosing one option over the other? And do you see any of your DIY clients becoming full time clients?

Over 90% of clients end up choosing lawyer-enabled services. We have not had any DIY clients upgrade yet, but it’s a relatively small sample.

Do you keep metrics on your success rate – so that you can predict the likelihood of success moving forward?

We do, and we try to follow up with DIY clients to see how they fared as well. So far we have been at 100% success in both categories, though we have been in the position to be very selective about which cases we take. We track a number of jurisdictional metrics as well—which counties order hearings, which counties sign orders in chambers, how long did the docket take if the case was on a docket, which prosecutors object, what standards did they likely use in objecting. We are interested in anything that can help us predict client success and effective hourly rate.

What’s your five-year plan for your law practice? Do you intend to continue to focus only on expungements or broaden your practice?

We are going to broaden our approach in a number of ways. First, we are working toward forming a non-profit branch of what we do to provide pro bono representation for people who qualify for felony expungement, but can’t afford the cost of representation. It will be called Unconvicted.org, and should launch in the next six months. Next, we are working with attorneys in parts of Kentucky that we do not currently service to train them on our system, and form business relationships in a way that ensures every client gets the Unconvicted brand experience. We are still working out exactly how this system will look. We have relatively reasonable fee-splitting rules in Kentucky, but I only want to refer clients to the best attorneys in other counties, and it takes time to form those relationships and to train them on the way we do business.

As to broader practice areas, we are definitely interested in taking what we’ve learned from this project and applying it to other areas of the law. We have several other products in various stages of development. I am very excited about one that we will launch in the next three months. Criminal law is my core competency, but I believe that almost every consumer-facing, document-focused practice area can be improved in some aspects by adopting our lawyer-mediated form creation model.

And what about the five-year plan for the app? Are there any plans to make the technology available to expungement lawyers in other jurisdictions? Or do you intend to add any improvements or functionality?

Expanding to other jurisdictions is definitely a possibility. Our primary focus for now is on improving the client experience, training other lawyers in Kentucky how to use our system, and developing robust, repeatable, predictable methods for doing business and doing expungements. If we are successful at scaling within Kentucky we will look at other jurisdictions. We definitely have some improvements in mind for the app, both cosmetically and functionally. I have little question that if we focused our attention on improving the screening portion of what we do that we could make it much more efficient. As it is now, the app is still very much a minimum viable product. I’d definitely like to outsource further development for a truly custom solution that does everything I want.

Many lawyers view criminal defense law as one of the few practice areas impervious to automation if only because at some point, lawyers have to show up in court. Your practice is changing that to some extent – but what do you see as the future of criminal defense practice in the long run? Obviously, juries and cross-examination will remain constitutional imperatives (let’s hope so anyway) and require physical appearances – but beyond that, are there any other functions that can be automated and what are the implications for our judicial system?

For the most part, I agree with your premise. Criminal defense will and should be difficult to automate. Americans facing the deprivation of their liberty will hopefully always have the right to a jury and in-person confrontation. However, we are at the intersection of two very interesting trends: the increased acceptance of technology by legal consumers and a political push for criminal justice reform. While I believe that criminal justice reform should be driven by the desire to correct the human rights violations in our system, I believe that the ultimate driver of criminal justice reform will be budget. It’s expensive to lock people up. And in many cases it is a waste of money for minor offenses. One solution to this problem is to decriminalize lots of minor offenses and have them only carry a civil penalty. Once decriminalized, defendants are stripped of many of their procedural due process rights. From there, we aren’t far removed from remote video trials, non-lawyer representation, computer assisted pro se, who knows? Will we be garnishing people’s bitcoin wallets for things that were formerly misdemeanors? It’s fun to speculate, and I’m sure there is a great science fiction story to be written here. That said, remote appearance and programs like Matterhorn in Michigan should hopefully free up the court system’s limited resources for criminal justice to focus on the cases that need more attention.

Final thoughts?

Opening a law firm has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life, but it has also been the most rewarding. No matter what happens with this firm, I’m confident that I would’ve regretted not taking the jump more than I will ever regret what we’ve done. We’ve helped hundreds of people clear their records, and it’s been tremendously fulfilling. I cannot wait to see what my clients due after they are unencumbered by their convictions. If anyone would like more information on what we do, don’t hesitate to contact me at brad@unconvicted.com.

 

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