In this special collaboration between Write.law and Thine, we explore the relationships between legal professionals and technology. Each piece will share a story about a professional and their tech. Our goal is to shine a light on how real folks rely on technology every day in the legal industry—and where they think we are heading next.
by Joe Regalia, Write.law
“Can lawyers follow their passions and still make a living?”
My law students ask me this all the time. Most lawyers have probably asked themselves some version of it before. I know I have.
We all brought passions with us to law school, and (hopefully) we still carry them with us after. So when you meet someone who took their passion for helping others and turned it into a successful career, it’s powerful stuff. It’s a reminder that amazing things are possible for legal folks willing to look for new ways to add value to the world.
Enter Dorna Moini, former Biglaw attorney turned legal tech founder. Listening to Dorna’s story, it’s hard not to get inspired—with no real tech background, she built Documate, a leading document automation company that helps deliver legal service to thousands.
She saw the need folks have for legal help. She innovated a solution. And she left the security of a premier legal job to make her vision a reality.
But she didn’t neatly plan it out that way. Which is a lesson for all of us. Documate was born out of Dorna’s journey to solve legal problems for others. And that’s probably why it’s been so successful.
To be fair, Dorna has been in the helping-others game for a while. In Iran, where her parents grew up and she spent time as a child, Dorna saw firsthand why access to justice matters. Both in law school and after graduating, Dorna worked hard to make that access easier for people. She worked with human rights groups. She went to Mauritania, Africa and helped pen anti-slavery legislation.
Then she joined one of the most elite private law firms in the world, Sidley Austin. But Dorna’s story is a good reminder that working at a firm does not mean you need to leave your passion for helping others at the front desk. Quite the opposite. While at Sidley, Dorna continued her work as part of the firm’s pro bono program.
And just as important, she picked up the skills she would need to build a legal tech company that could help many more. That part was by design. “I had heard from my professors, even those in the human rights field, that big firms can offer incredible training opportunities.”
You might not think a Biglaw firm would be a breeding ground for legal entrepreneurs, but many ignore the deep bench of skills and tools you can pick up. Yes, smaller firms can also offer excellent opportunities to develop your skills. But bigger firms provide training that is hard to get anywhere else. And many of those skills are just as useful for innovators and entrepreneurs like Dorna.
“In big litigation cases, you spend a lot of time working on your long-term strategy. But you also have to react quickly because there are so many moving parts. You need to be nimble. Resourceful. You need to constantly learn new skills that you never imagined you would ever need. And all of that translates to the business world.”
As for developing those skills, Dorna offers excellent advice that I wish I had learned sooner. In short, that you can learn a lot from every job if you’re smart enough to receive it.
“A lot of people think your legal experience must be content specific: ‘If I want to work with software clients, I must work in a software group.’ But really, developing your broader skill sets is just as important. And you can do that from almost any legal job.”
Her work at Sidley paid off on that front.
“I honed my project management skills. I learned about people management and keeping associates motivated. All those skills have been essential.” She also developed her research skills, which ended up being especially important as a legal tech founder: “You have to learn how to do everything as a new company founder, even those skills that you will eventually delegate. Research the law. Figure out policies. And find answers to a million other things. And my work at a law firm developed my ability to do that.”
Many of us would hesitate to leave a premier law firm to found a legal tech company. But Dorna’s reasons for jumping hold a lot of wisdom for us, too.
First, she felt like it would push her to expand her skills. “I felt too comfortable at that point in my career. I knew that I had to be uncomfortable if I wanted to grow.”
Second, she was iterative about her process. Dorna didn’t just walk out of her office one day and decide to launch a company. She started small, working on a domestic violence project pro bono. She explored different ways to automate the legal process for survivors. And as she grew her expertise and began to see the possibilities that automation offered, she kept building her project and her skill set until she was ready to take the next step.
Third, she didn’t go at it alone. Dorna had the help of great folks along the way, including legal tech celebrity Bob Ambrogi, who wrote about her platform in its early stages when it was still a tool for domestic violence survivors. That networking support helped set Documate’s trajectory: “Suddenly all these people started reaching out, asking us to help automate their practice.”
Then, the magic ingredient: because Dorna had spent so much time working on real problems and coming up with real solutions, she was able to build a product that created genuine value for others.
“I realized that we needed to build a platform that empowers lawyers to automate their own expertise. It’s not about me being the subject matter expert; it’s about supporting others and democratizing the software development process so they can bring their expertise to more people who need it.”
Dorna offers us some advice that we would all be wise to consider:
- There is untapped legal need ripe for disruption right now. And meeting this need is not always about pro bono effort. “There are many people who can afford legal help, but just not at the current prices lawyers charge.”
- You can gain valuable skills and expertise in many ways. Don’t assume that one type of job or experience is the only way to get it. “Whether it’s a business pitch for clients or pro bono work, there’s always a lot to learn.”
- Innovate and experiment as much as you can, especially early in your career. Be curious and follow your curiosity. It will pay off later.
- Say yes! You will rarely regret doing something new, taking some risk, and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. You will always learn a lot.
- Network! Meet more people. Keep those relationships. Those people will become colleagues. Clients. Coworkers. So many legal folks are afraid to reach out. “Yes, you might get a cold shoulder sometimes. But who cares? It's all a numbers game, and you will eventually end up with incredible relationships.”
About Dorna and Documate
Dorna Moini is the CEO and co-founder of Documate, a no-code platform for building document automation and client-facing legal apps. Prior to starting Documate, Dorna was a litigator at Sidley Austin, where she built expert systems for legal aid organizations, leading to the idea for Documate.
Dorna is on the Legal Services Corporation Emerging Leaders Council and a member of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles's Advisory Board. She was named an ABA Legal Rebel and a Fastcase 50 honoree. She also teaches the Legal Innovations Lab at USC Law School.
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