Online legal services provider Belaws was founded in 2017 in Bangkok before quickly expanding to neighbouring countries. Belaws utilizes digital technologies to optimize the client-lawyer relationship. Clients enjoy fast, clear and transparent services while lawyers increase their productivity. In this interview with Asia Law Portal, Vincent Birot, Belaws Co-Founder & CEO, explains what inspired the founding of Belaws and where the company is headed in the future.
What is Belaws and what inspired its founding?
Belaws – www.belaws.com – works as an international law firm uniting value-added legal advice and corporate services under a one-stop platform. When I was working for traditional law firms, there were 4 main points where our process makes it difficult to fully satisfy our clients:
- The difficulty for clients to assess whether or not the lawyer who will work on their cases has the relevant expertise
- The time gap between a client’s request and the moment the lawyer actually starts working on the client’s job
- The clarity of the cost structure before the lawyer even starts working
- The lack of interoperability between legal, corporate and accounting services which are complementary for clients and should be proposed as a one-stop service
The first version of Belaws was released in November 2017 and solved 3 of those 4 pain points. The last point was finally addressed in September 2019.
- Expert lawyer: Belaws lawyers are curated from top-tier law firms and are onboarded on Belaws within their main area of expertise only. When clients post job requests, Belaws’ algorithm will automatically allocate requests to the lawyers with the relevant expertise, ensuring clients that the lawyer who will quote his fees is an actual expert for this case. This is a real breakthrough because even when a client goes to big international law firms with top-ranked experts, his case may not be allocated to this expert lawyer but to another lawyer of the firm.
- Fast onboarding: The traditional process for onboarding a client for new matters is excessively long to the point where sometimes a law firm will spend more time creating the client account than actually answering the client’s questions. We have digitalized the whole onboarding process, allowing lawyers to submit a detailed quotation in just a few clicks, with an automatic generation of the engagement letter with electronic signature, invoice issued and payment collected on behalf of the lawyer. When a client chooses to pay by credit card or PayPal, the settlement is instant, allowing the lawyer to start working on the case shortly after his proposal has been submitted! For most firms, this process takes a few days, a lot of back and forth between the client, the lawyer, the managing partner who is the signatory of the engagement letter, the accountant and admin staff, etc.
- Transparency: One of the most recurrent points of friction between a client and his lawyer is the billing. On Belaws, all quotations are fixed in advance. This is possible because lawyers quoting their fees on Belaws have actual experience on the matter and are the ones doing the work, so they are in a good position to estimate the amount of time actually required.
For complex matters, the lawyers fix their price per milestone with a specific scope of work for each milestone. The quotation will clearly indicate the amount for official fees (if any) and for out-of-pocket expenses. As the payment is collected before the lawyer starts working on each milestone, we have removed the problem of lawyers chasing fees and clients contesting the final price.
- One-stop service: In September 2019, we were able to complete our original vision by releasing our digital company secretary service, allowing clients to register their company online and to proceed to corporate changes in just a few clicks at pre-fixed prices (change of directors, share transfer, etc.). Basically, a client creating a company through Belaws (or adding an existing one by simply uploading the relevant corporate documents on Belaws) can order corporate services at “competitive prices” and involve expert lawyers for more complex work, who are only a few clicks away. Ancillary services such as certification and translations have been added to create the first truly one-stop service for corporate clients. This service is available for Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong and will soon be expanded to other jurisdictions where Belaws operates.
Belaws utilizes an online platform to deliver legal services at fixed prices. How does this work?
The expert lawyer is at the center of Belaws system and the technology we have developed is here to optimize the whole client/lawyer journey and ultimately reduce the cost of delivering legal services.
When a client has a legal or corporate issue, instead of searching for law firms and sending emails to several of them, he simply goes to www.belaws.com, chooses the relevant jurisdiction (Belaws is available in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, France and California), the area of practice (Corporate, Intellectual Property, Employment law, Private Equity, etc.) and specifies the details of his request.
From here, the relevant expert lawyer is automatically notified and will contact the client to follow up on the case. Clients can expect to receive 2 to 3 quotations, allowing them to compare several offers of service within Belaws ecosystem.
When the client’s request is detailed enough, the lawyer can submit a quotation straight away. But more often, the lawyer will need to obtain more information to assess the client’s need before being able to submit a clear quotation. When necessary, Belaws encourages lawyers and clients to have calls and physical meetings as the personal relationship and trust between a lawyer and his client is a fundamental element of the legal industry.
Once the client has accepted a quotation and signed the engagement letter, all communication and documents are centralized on the same page. Other options, like collaborating with your team, make it a lot easier for complex cases involving several lawyers and clients to work together on the same matter.
For new matters, the client can contact any lawyer he already worked with or who submitted a quotation (it is usual that a lawyer spends time with a client, submits a proposal that doesn’t go through but the lawyer made a good impression to the client, so the client decides to work with him for future matters) without going through our internal bidding system. As a matter of fact, most of our clients use this feature “My Lawyers” to work again with the same lawyers and create their own digital legal department of expert lawyers.
Belaws operates in the ASEAN region and in France. Why these jurisdictions and do you plan to expand your jurisdictional reach in the future?
Belaws started in Thailand because the two co-founders live and met in Bangkok. Thailand is actually a great place to start a business with the Board of Investment (official agency attracting foreign investment in Thailand) granting a certain number of privileges such as 100% foreign ownership for projects that are deemed to benefit the Thai economy, digital activities being one of them.
As most of our clients have businesses in the region and face difficulties to have the same level of service across Asia, we quickly expanded Belaws to neighboring countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore and Hong Kong. France, and more recently California, were opportunistic choices as we have a good network over there.
After 3 years of development and many clients served, we are ready to expand to more jurisdictions and become an alternative offer to international law firms. If our tech is easily deployable in other jurisdictions, our main challenge remains to collaborate with lawyers who can work together as part of the same team, regardless of their location or practice.
Who works with Belaws? Who provides the services and who is the consumer?
Belaws’ original positioning is on the high-end market of legal services with lawyers from top-tier firms. We carefully select lawyers who work or used to work with international law firms and onboard them on Belaws within their area of expertise only. Belaws is not a marketplace and lawyers cannot register by themselves on Belaws. Our ecosystem, which we want of the highest standard, relies solely on licensed lawyers, on whom we run a KYC and check their track record in their respective jurisdiction. We make them work only on matters that fall under their main area of expertise. We have freelance lawyers and agreements with several top-tier law firms who allocate some of their expert lawyers to Belaws. From a client perspective, it is like shopping around from an international firm where he can choose between 2 to 3 different proposals.
The first circle of lawyers came from our original network and when we expanded to other jurisdictions, we relied on the network of our original lawyers. This allows a close ecosystem similar to the one of an international law firm with lawyers who are able to work together on cross-border matters.
Our main clients are of two kinds:
- In-house lawyers from regional and international companies who need expert lawyers and appreciate more transparency on the pricing and the insurance to have an actual expert allocated to their matters.
- Legal-savvy Entrepreneurs, Startups and SMEs who are aware of the costs involved and appreciate to have expert lawyers from international law firms at a price comparable to local firms.
What has been the response to Belaws from clients?
The response of our clients has been really positive, as there is a real need for modern legal services relying on technology like most industries have been doing for years (eCommerce, fintech, ec.). Additionally, they did not know that such a platform existed, as the positioning of Belaws as a B2B2C model with top lawyers with a platform designed for both lawyers and their clients is quite unique. Most legal tech companies have developed specific tools (e.g. AI on litigation, proofreading), lawyer tools (law firm management system, contract management system, etc.) or focused on the mass legal market with as many lawyers as possible, with the risk of ending up being closer to a directory of lawyers rather than a value-added platform that connects its customer with the right lawyer. Our approach is different and places the expert lawyers at the center with digital technology to make the whole process of delivering legal services smoother.
As already mentioned, they also appreciate the possibility to receive several quotations from several expert lawyers with only one point of contact, as well as the transparency and the ability of our lawyers to work together for cross-border matters like if the client was working with an international law firm. Almost all our clients are recurrent and once they have worked with one lawyer, they will contact him directly through the feature “My Lawyers”, allowing them to create their own digital legal department and appoint one of their lawyers to coordinate with others for cross-practice and cross-border matters.
What is your background as a lawyer?
I am a French qualified lawyer. I obtained a Master degree from the University Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne (Sorbonne Law School), an LL.M from the University of Exeter and passed the Paris bar. I started working as a private equity lawyer with King & Wood Mallesons (Paris office) and Baker McKenzie (Luxembourg office) before joining LawPlus Ltd., a regional law firm headquartered in Bangkok.
My lawyer background has been particularly helpful to address the pain points of the lawyer as well as appreciate his value. Understanding how digital technology can emphasize this value is at the core of Belaws’ goal, which is to help him to break free from the traditional law firm model where the chain of value does not necessarily represent the clients’ best interests (e.g. partners’ fees and operating costs). This was a perfect match with my co-founder Julien Chalté, who has been a serial entrepreneur and used legal services for many different projects, knowing what he expects from lawyers as a client. Those two visions together have allowed the creation of this unique B2B2C platform thought for the lawyer by a lawyer and for the client by a client.
You’ve launched an Employment Law Clinic in Thailand. Tell us about that.
The COVID-19 outbreak has forced companies to reduce their workforce and leave numerous employees jobless. This is already creating significant litigation grounds between employers and employees, and this situation keeps worsening every day.
At Belaws, we wanted to launch an initiative to help and be part of the common effort. The concept is to support employees and employers with a free consultation/quick easy access to a lawyer on legal issues related to work suspension, employment contract negotiation and termination. This to ensure that both parties act within the law to avoid further litigation.
To do so, we have created a dedicated page for employment matters (Employment Law Clinic) during the pandemic on our platform where client requests are automatically shuffled through the pool of lawyers registered on Belaws for this initiative. Each lawyer is notified by email and can then log in to our platform to see the client requests and answer in writing or by setting up a conference call (at his discretion).
One of the numerous advantages of our legal tech system is that all requests are centralized, creating an efficient one-stop service for clients, thus offering them the same consistent experience regardless of what firm they engage with. Perfect digital solution for clients and lawyers to work remotely during the pandemic.
The Employment Law Clinic has since been expanded to Singapore, Cambodia and California.
What do you see as the future for online legal services in the ASEAN region?
The current pandemic makes the world win 5 years in terms of digitalization. It is obvious that most legal services will move online the same way that no one would think people would buy clothes online without actually trying them on, or handle bank accounts. We are now jumping into the unknown. There is no better timing for a big move. After all, don’t we say that the world belongs to those who get up early? We now have court trials who are conducted by video calls, and lawyers regularly advising their clients without meeting then physically anymore.
Traditional law firms will have to rethink their business model if they want to remain competitive, as legal platforms like ours are designed to distribute profits to where they belong: the lawyers who actually do the job. Unnecessary operating expenses will be taken out. Most of the business development will also move online, where the emphasis will be placed on tangible metrics and results rather than on a fancy office. This is where Belaws brings its full value.