Interview: Oathello founder on leaving the law — to build modern tools for lawyers

Jennifer Hourihane

Irish Legal News correspondent Kevin Burns meets with Jennifer Hourihane, founder and CEO of Oathello, the mobile platform making waves in the Irish legal scene.

If Silicon Docks is the headquarters of Ireland’s resident tech giants, then the old storehouses around St James’ Gate have become the hot spot for Ireland’s tech start-ups. Whilst dock workers and stevedores have been replaced by Facebook and Google, the streets which were once the domain of brewers and coopers are now home to the National Digital Research Centre, a hub for up-and-coming tech entrepreneurs.

This is where ILN met Jennifer, the founder and CEO of Oathello, a legal tech platform that promises to revolutionise the way documents are witnessed and notarised.

Having been named by the Sunday Independent as one of the top 30 young businesspeople of 2017, and for good measure attracting the interest of The Irish Times, ILN felt it was time to get up to speed with her big idea.

What is your background?

Well, I’m from a business background. My family are farmers down in west Cork, and I think I was always very attracted to the glamour and mystery of a career in law. I went to school in a coastal little village called Rosscarbery, and I didn’t stray too far to go to college – I studied law in UCC – and then I did this thing called BPL Clinical, which is a year of practical experience before you finish off your course. That took me to Luxembourg for six months, which was a great experience, and I managed to get a bit of travel in while getting a bit of the flavour about what working in a corporate law firm might be like.

After that I decided to go for it, I did my FE1s. Then in 2010 I began my traineeship with ByrneWallace at their commercial firm based here in Dublin. At the time, the recession had hit and so you’d be very lucky to get a training contract. It was a very busy time to be working in a commercial law firm, but also a great time because you got to experience a bit of everything that the firm does.

From there I went to Blackhall Place and was admitted to the Roll of Solicitors in 2014. From there, I went on to practise in A&L Goodbody where I worked in a variety of areas, and eventually settled in their pensions and employee benefits section. So I had a couple of years practising in law which opened my mind to the business world generally. It was a very inspiring time of my life, a very busy time. And it was from here that the ideas were cropping up about how technology, in particular a mobile based platform, could really help the legal profession. And so the idea for Oathello was born out of practical experience last year.

“The current process if you need to get a document witnessed or notarised is very similar to how you used to hail a taxi.”

Tell us about Oathello – what’s your sales pitch?

The current process if you need to get a document witnessed or notarised is very similar to how you used to hail a taxi. You are invariably under time constraints; maybe on a case, or a deal, or with clients or on a site. You find yourself making lots of phone calls and calling in a few favours. You eventually book somebody, but they could be quite a distance away. And at the end of all that you have to pay in cheque or petty cash. So it’s all a bit of nightmare; it’s a completely fragmented and outdated process.

With Oathello, we built a mobile platform where you can find, book and pay for all these services online for free. You just tap on to the mobile platform and within thirty seconds you can make your booking, someone will come to you and either witnesses or notarises your document, whichever your needs are, and you pay instantly online. It is a fully online seamless service. It takes all of those moving parts — that last-minute nightmare situation — out of the equation and makes life a bit easier.

What’s in a name Oathello? I got the “oath” bit, but is it also a wee bit of a play on Shakespeare’s Othello?

It actually has nothing to do with the Shakespearean tragedy, and I hope things stay that way when it comes to the trajectory of the business.

Mobile platforms generally are something that inspires me. Our e-commerce partners are a platform called Stripe. A lot of the platforms based here in Dublin meet regularly about the sharing economy. It’s always been something that has inspired me as a business person and I’m excited to see where it’s going. The name Oathello is actually inspired by Hailo (the taxi booking app). Hailo was done very well; a regulated profession was basically gifted a tool that made life so much easier. So, we’re very inspired by that, and I think alluding to Hailo in our name gives a nod to what the platform actually does. It’s a combination of oaths and the platform, Hailo.

What platforms do you support?

We’re currently based on iOS, but we’re actually building a mobile-responsive website so that you can access the app from your desktop. That’s something that our customers can look forward to down the line. Currently, we’re looking at developing our “device agnostic platform”, which means that it doesn’t matter what you’re on – an iPhone, a Samsung, a laptop, or a desktop – you’ll be able to access Oathello. That’s part of our plans for early 2018.

How many users do you have?

We have hundreds of users in the Dublin area at present. We’re looking to branch out to London, the UK and further afield as well.

On the customer side of things, we’re speaking to partners at all the leading law firms as well as to a wide range of businesses – compliance businesses, aviation and aircraft businesses, leasing businesses – from whom we’ve found a massive demand for the service amongst the wider business community. That’s where we see us going; making sure that any business can get its documents notarised quickly and efficiently.

We’re taking on investments from British and Northern Irish partners at the moment, so that’ll soon expand our base. We’re also very keen to get into the London market soon. The pinpoints are obviously going to be very different in each individual city, but we’re really excited to meet the challenges of branching out to different cities, particularly in the UK. That’s all planned for the new year.

“The decision to leave behind my legal career was a very big one and it’s not something that I took lightly.”

Dublin is a city renowned for its tech start-ups and becoming more so. What’s it like to run a tech start-up here in Ireland?

It is the best. It’s really good. It’s a really supportive community.

Having left my legal career – which is something a lot of your readers will identify with: you work very hard, you drink a lot of Red Bull to pass a lot of exams, you make a lot of sacrifices, you’re sat up at a desk late at night and working weekends; you basically put a whole lot of effort into building your legal career – the decision to leave that behind was a very big one and it’s not something that I took lightly. Before doing it I spoke to a lot of people in the tech and start-up community here in Dublin to get some advice about what the decision would actually mean.

I mean it when I say I found the community just so supportive; it really felt like an open door policy for everyone. If someone tells you to call them or to drop by their office for a coffee to run ideas by them, they genuinely mean it. It’s a very collaborative community.

Especially being based here in NDRC (National Digital Research Centre) I would say it has given us a brilliant start. There are about fifty early-stage companies with technology and innovation at the heart of their business in NDRC. Some of them are also legal tech start-ups, like Brightflag, are based in NDRC. It’s a wonderful place to start a business, a great place to talk to other entrepreneurs, and to meet people who code and build the products as well. That last point is important, because while knowing your industry is one thing, you must remember that technology is at the heart of what you do, so starting in a place with a really collaborative environment gave us a great start.

Within Dublin specifically, NDRC is within the top three tech-accelerators in Europe, which means that Dublin is really at the heart of the European tech industry. Dublin has been a really wonderful place to start.

Enterprise Ireland were absolutely crucial in helping us build out the platform and properly scaling it out to customers; they were an absolutely super support. I know companies that come from all over Europe to start businesses in Dublin; it’s massive. It’s really not just Irish start-ups. They’re coming from across the UK and across the continent. It’s not just a cliché to say that Ireland is the best little country in which to do business, its happening.

Who helped you build this app?

We have a development team which actually build the product. I’m very much the face of the business. It’s my role to talk with our partners, to figure out precisely how the current process for witnessing and notarising documents works, and figuring out how address the issues right down to the nitty-gritty details through a mobile based solution. That last bit has really been my focus over the last twelve months; keeping the development team online with the vision of the business and up to date on how we can meet our customers’ needs.

How do you market your app?

At the moment we’ve really just been marketing through our own network and word of mouth. However, last year the business did get some great PR in several broadsheets (The Irish Times, Sunday Independent) and through social media which was just amazing. We were also finalists in the AIB Start-Up Academy through which we got some great coverage. That really builds up brand recognition, which as a legal tech start-up is important as you need that recognition before you launch the product. LinkedIn is also a really good platform for us. It’s a great way for us to reach customers as lawyers are very active within LinkedIn. We’re also working on some exciting marketing strategies for next year.

What’s your reception amongst lawyers been like thus far?

It’s broadly been embraced. I think there is a consensus that there is a lot of “low hanging fruit” in law, lots of things which need to be fixed. There are plenty of outdated processes which are relatively easy to fix by tech and simple mobile/desktop solutions. In this day and age lawyers need that because they’re increasingly coming under pressure to do more with less time. Doing more with less seems to be the key trend across all areas. No matter if you’re doing family law or corporate law, contentious or non-contentious cases, if you’re support staff or a managing partner, you are expected to do more with less.

In order to make that a bit easier on the profession, various simple tasks are being streamlined by legal tech, and that’s what we’re doing with Oathello. We’re reducing the time it currently takes to get a document notarised down from two hours to two minutes. You make a booking on Oathello, you don’t leave your office, you don’t mess around with a petty cash docket or cheques or cash, you don’t have to make loads of phone calls; you just get it done quickly by professionals online. So it’s one less thing to worry about when you book with Oathello.

Some of the other legal tech firms that we’ve interviewed have run into a bit of a backlash due to fear that the technology might make legal professionals obsolete. Has Oathello faced any of that sort of hostility?

Not at all! We’re a friendly, cuddly legal tech start-up. But also, I think everyone understands that Oathello just encourages the profession to be more productive rather than replacing what lawyers do. I’m aware there’s a few AI (artificial intelligence) scares and the whole fear of the invasion of the robot lawyers, but we’re not really caught up in that.

Law is such a complex and psychological thing that we’re always going to need humans to provide legal advice. The legal profession isn’t going anywhere any time soon. But the more productive it becomes the better for the customer. That’s one thing the legal profession needs to remember; in order to stay relevant and to stay profitable you need to embrace legal tech.

What will lawyering look like in a tech-heavy world?

It will look more like a business. Increasingly we’re seeing law firms invest less in real estate. They’re investing less in stuffy corner offices, they’re moving into shared work spaces, and they’re moving into on-demand platforms. So you’re already seeing the outsourcing of certain types of legal work to third-party on-demand platforms, and I think Oathello feeds into that trend. For example, Pinsent Masons has its own on-demand platform of legal support staff. I think we’re going to see more of a divergence between on-demand legal services and specialist lawyers opining on specific points of law, as opposed to the traditional “trainee solicitor, solicitor, associate, senior associate, partner” model. We’re going to move more towards a model with experts on one hand and agile, on-demand online platforms on the other. I do believe that, while law firms will remain profitable, their buildings will decrease in size as more and more on-demand ways of providing certain services online arise.

How does Oathello fit into this brave new world?

With the shift to law firms embracing more “business supports” so they can focus on the high-end legal work, legal tech firms like Oathello will take on more of the donkey-work for them. Oathello will play into that drive towards efficiency.

What have been your biggest challenges so far?

I’d say building out the tech has been the big challenge. It’s easy to inadvertently build something that nobody wants or that just doesn’t work. So listening to our customers at every single point when they’re using the product is really important because it means that you may have to reverse building something, or build something differently, or build a completely different feature. Keeping your eye on that is crucial because time is of the essence when it comes to creating technology. That has been a challenge purely because it’s something entirely new, but we’ve had great support here in the NDRC. So, building out the technology generally and keeping our eyes on that and keeping it very tight and relevant was, I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a challenge, but it was definitely something new, and it’s something we’ve managed to master and overcome.

Final message to our readers?

I’d like to welcome all your readers to get involved! The message that we’ve got through our feedback so far is that once you sign up you’re never going back. We have this mission critical with Oathello that convenience trumps everything. So, when you try a better and more efficient way of doing things, it’s addictive. So I’d encourage your readers to embrace this new way of doing things and have one less this to worry about in the working day.

Kevin Burns, Irish Legal News