We caught up with Ajaz Ahmed, founder of Freeserve, the UK’s largest ISP of the dial-up era, and more recently accessible legal services site Legal365.com, to talk about how freelancers, contractors and small businesses can take better care of themselves legally.
So what is Legal365?
It’s a way for freelancers and small businesses to easily access legal documents and services for a low, fixed cost – and sometimes free! For example a Power of Attorney document – which could cost hundreds of pounds from an old-school solicitor – costs £10 through us. We’re a proper law firm, and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation
How did the idea first come about?
A while ago I went to a dinner party and ended up sitting one seat away from a lawyer (with Janet Street-Porter in between us, weirdly enough). We didn’t talk too much on the night, but a few weeks later he called me and wanted to have a chat about delivering legal services online.
We met for coffee and he explained to me how the legal services market is put together. At that time, it was completely anti-competitive. Only qualified solicitors could be shareholders of a legal practice, and this had led to a stagnant market that was only interested in maintaining the status quo rather than delivering real value for customers. There were no new ideas, no competition on price – the whole market had literally been exactly the same for decades.
Thankfully the Government took a look and decided the market was, indeed, anti-competitive, and changed the rules with the Legal Services Act. With the market opened up a bit I investigated and saw a huge opportunity. A few law firms had dabbled with selling services online, but their solutions were complicated and written in ridiculous legal jargon. It was a completely user-unfriendly situation.
How did you go about changing that?
My background before Freeserve was retail (at Dixons and later PC World), so I know how to make things friendly for consumers. When we were putting the Legal365 website together we made sure to keep the whole thing as simple as possible. We separated out consumer and business services, and made sure all the website copy was written by someone who was not a lawyer.
We based our services on demand. If there was a particular document people asked for again and again we made sure we had it.
Who is the market for Legal365?
Everybody! But more specifically, those small businesses who do deals on a handshake.
Loads of small businesses avoid proper legal services because it’s complicated and, more importantly, expensive. Without the proper paperwork you’re putting yourself and your business at risk. Nobody wants business deals and relationships to go bad, but unfortunately sometimes they do – and that’s when you need protection.
A friend of mine asked me for advice recently because he’d fallen out with his business partner. I asked him “What does it say in your shareholder agreement?”, and he looked at me blankly. Getting a proper shareholder agreement drawn up by a traditional lawyer would cost hundreds of pounds and involve loads of meetings and hourly billing – now you can get one for £100 online and complete it in the comfort of your own office!
Freelancers and small businesses have gotten by without proper legal cover because it’s inaccessible and expensive – we’re trying to make it the opposite.
What plans do you have for the future?
We launched the website quietly at the beginning of the year – we’re very much in a “learning” phase at the moment. We know we’re onto something, but we want to make sure our offering meets everyone’s needs before we start really marketing it.
One of the things people always say to me is they hate visiting lawyers offices’, so we’re planning to launch high street branches of Legal365 that are more like coffee shops. People can come in, talk to our staff, and see the prices for everything we offer. We won’t be charging by the hour so there’s no incentive for our staff to mess people around – we can just give them really good service at a really good price.
And finally…why does everyone hate lawyers?
For me it’s the lack of transparency – similar to why nobody trusts traditional accountants. They just want to take your money, deliver their services but be completely secretive about what they’re actually doing. Through building Legal365 I think I’ve learned why – it’s not actually that complicated, and they’re worried if their secret gets out people won’t pay the huge hourly rates any more!