“We want to show students how to be entrepreneurs”

A legal education may be key to unlocking entrepreneurship, say the Harvard Law School graduates who created Evisort, an artificial intelligence-powered contract management platform.

“We never took the bar. We went straight to Silicon Valley. From five people at a whiteboard, we now have 160 employees,” said Memme Onwudiwe ’19, who serves as Evisort’s executive vice president of legal and business intelligence. “We saw that this is a path that we want to open up to more people.”

In 2016 – while both were still law students – Onwudiwe joined the startup at the invitation of co-founders Jerry Ting ’18, Jacob Sussman ’18 and Riley Hawkins ’19. This year, Onwudiwe and Ting returned to Harvard to share what they’ve learned about both creating startups and how their specialty – legal technology – is transforming the profession.

Credit: Lorin Granger Memme Onwudiwe ’19 is Evisort’s Executive Vice President of Legal and Business Intelligence.

On March 29, they welcomed a dozen students gathered around the seminar table to Startup Entrepreneurship and Innovations in Legal Technology, the second day of the intensive six-day reading group on Harvard Law School’s campus. After a panel discussion and podcast to start the day, the two-hour course evolved from a lecture to a discussion where the four guests of the day – legal executives from a range of industries – shared their real-world experiences as pioneers in this rapid change Field.

“The idea was basically to go back and teach people about startup entrepreneurship and innovations in legal technology,” Onwudiwe said. “We wanted to show students how to be entrepreneurs.”

His business partner and co-lecturer, Ting, agreed.

“Our message to students is that you don’t need to have an MBA to start a business,” added Ting, CEO of Evisort. What budding entrepreneurs need, he said, is a roadmap.

We never took the bar. We went straight to Silicon Valley.

Meme Onwudiwe ’19

“There’s no way we could have done it without help,” Ting explained. He said this course is a way to share that hands-on knowledge — part of what Ting called the “entrepreneurial ecosystem.” It also allows them to share both the tools they’ve picked up working with the Harvard Innovation Lab and the leads they’ve uncovered through sheer determination.

“We were like crazy people,” Ting recalls. “We cold called professors to help us. We didn’t know where to go and so part of the idea here is that if someone wants to do something entrepreneurial on campus, we can break the journey down into specific steps.”

This practical know-how is already helping Deven Hurt ’23. His startup Prediction Strike is essentially a fantasy sports exchange that allows users to buy and sell stocks of professional athletes as if they were stocks. The company, which went public in 2019, currently has around 58,000 users who have completed more than $12 million worth of transactions.

“We’re still in the early stages,” Hurt said. For him, the questions are simple: “Can I get users? How can I turn this into a truly sustainable business?” Although Evisort is much further along, he knows that Onwudiwe and Ting have already faced these questions. “Because they’ve seen everything, everything they’ve taught us is so helpful,” he said.

Hurt is particularly aware of the value of these lessons because he’s seen “two or three” startup companies fail. As a Harvard student, he majored in bioengineering, and his business partner had attempted to start several medical technology companies. “Something we talked about in this course was identifying customers, talking to customers very early on, figuring out if they would buy what you’re selling, putting out an early version, and figuring out if it would last.”

In these first ventures, Hurt and his partner ignored these steps. “We spent a lot of time building in a silo. We didn’t do enough customer interviews to even figure out that this isn’t what we were supposed to be building.” If he had taken that course, he remarked, “I don’t know if it would have saved those companies. That would have saved me time.”

Panelists at the HALB conference

Credit: Lorin Granger On April 6, faculty member Memme Onwudiwe ’19 (right) welcomed leading legal experts from Netflix, Microsoft, BNY Mellon and Otsuka Pharmaceutical to campus for a panel discussion on innovations in legal technology as part of his course and for a panel discussion hosted by the Harvard Association for Law and Business (HALB). Also attending the HALB event were panelists Renny Hwang ’05, Google’s litigation director, and Tony West, Uber’s chief legal officer.

Panelists at the HALB conference

On March 29, Harvard Law and Business hosted a panel discussion with Tom Stephenson, General Counsel at Credit Karma; Connie Brenton, vice president of legal, technology and operations at NetApp, Inc.; Carol Hopperton, General Counsel at Vonage; and Bianca Weber, general manager of legal affairs at Otsuka Pharmaceutical Companies. Several of the panelists were guest speakers in the Startup Entrepreneurship and Innovations in Legal Technology reading group.

This time he’s taking notes. “There are a lot of operational things that I know I’ll have to do one day.” Term sheets, for example, which the guest speakers discussed in detail: “What to look out for, what to look out for.”

“To be able to sit in a small seminar and learn with and from other students who have the same interests, and then have two instructors who have already done it — that’s phenomenal,” Hurt said. “As real as it gets.”

The other focus of the course – Legal Technology – shows how the profession is changing. To share this vision, Onwudiwe and Ting, in addition to their class, helped organize guest speakers for student-led organizations such as the Harvard Association for Law and Business and the Harvard Legal Technology Symposium. “What we’re excited about is that alongside a course for two weeks, Harvard Law School will be at the center of the world of legal technology and legal innovation,” Onwudiwe said.

Our message to students is that you don’t need to have an MBA to start a business.

Jerry Ting ’18

This is important as innovations like Evisort are just part of a larger shift in this space. Increasingly, Onwudiwe and Ting explained, legal businesses are running more like businesses, with alternative legal service providers (ALSPs) and technology taking over more of the day-to-day tasks.

“We’re actually seeing the role of the attorney changing,” Ting said. Evisort, for example, organizes a law firm’s contracts, turns them into a mineable database and also changes the role of the lawyer. “Rather than being the person who has to read the document, the attorney is actually accelerating the deal,” Ting said. “It gives the attorney the freedom to be more of a general counsel. It turns the lawyer into an entrepreneur.”

This change brought Genevieve Antono ’21 into this class. “In the traditional law school curriculum, you don’t think much about trends in the big picture,” Antono said. “But this is where the job goes.”

“Even if you go to a big law firm, if your clients are getting services from startups. or if they’re investing in legal operations, those are factors you need to think about,” she said. In class, she referred to a summer internship where lawyers “asked about technologies that didn’t exist yet.”

“Law firms are under a lot of pressure to change and evolve,” she said. “If you don’t know the industry trends, you will get into trouble.”

“This course takes a lot of the trends I’ve heard about and makes them a little more concrete for me,” said Antono. “I actually meet people and hear from them firsthand about the issues as it relates to my traditional legal education.

“This world has changed,” she added. “Law students need to take more responsibility for their learning and the development of trends in the industry. We have to be curious and take courses like this that push the envelope.”

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