“EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW,” says the enrgaved phrase above the front entrance of the United States Supreme Court. Famed architect Cass Gilbert designed it almost 100 years ago. And, though the phrase’s roots date back thousands of years, its words remain an ideal that the justice system continues seeking today. To many people, however, that ideal of equal justice—along with equal access to the justice system—remains elusive. Enter the Courtroom5 program.
The program’s founders, Sonja Ebron and Debra Slone, discovered that gap when they turned to the courts for justice. Both of them are non-lawyers who have represented themselves in a variety of different lawsuits. Their legal experiences range from simple matters like traffic tickets to more complex cases, like disputes with rental-car companies.
While each case presented its own difficulties, Ebron and Slone made a discovery: “[W]ith a little training and the right tools, we could make things happen in our cases that few lawyers could.” Because of what they found, they proudly say, “[W]e now kick butt in court.”
Courtroom5’s Founders Needed to Share What They Learned With Others
Both Ebron and Slone immediately knew that they needed to share their findings. That’s why Courtroom5 came along in 2017. “It started as just an educational project,” Ebron recalled. She and Slone wanted “to have people understand the flow of a case and what they needed to ask themselves and learn at any particular stage.” Once they started getting positive feedback from customers, their program grew into the case-management platform available today.
They designed Courtroom5 for complicated civil cases. Its more common applications include foreclosures, debt-collection cases and family-law disputes. But customers have also relied on Courtroom5 for bankruptcies, probate cases, slip-and-falls, and personal-injury matters. So far, Ebron explained, their customers have reported “startling successes, settling cases they didn’t expect to … and some outright winning that they didn’t expect to.”
Ebron’s and Slone’s Backgrounds Perfectly Compliment Courtroom5
“It’s great … I think the synergy is fantastic,” Ebron replied when asked about how her background joined Slone’s background to form Courtroom5 come together. Ebron is an engineer, the one responsible for problem-solving and system work.
Slone, on the other hand, is a former librarian and library-school professor. According to Ebron, she relies on that experience “to distill very technical … legal topics down to layman’s terms” and “understands in layman’s terms what people need to know.”
Applying her technology to Slone’s information, Ebron says the two can get all the necessary information to their customers when they need it: “It’s a perfect fit.”
Its Triangle Location Helps Courtroom5 Continue Reaching People
Courtroom5’s vision has attracted programs and competitions both locally and globally. Courtroom5 recently earned one of the rare spots in the Techstars Kansas City Accelerator. That 13-week-long program comes with access to funding, mentors and potential investors. “I think they saw an opportunity for us to grow very rapidly,” Ebron said.
Courtroom5 also won the Black Founders Exchange Demo Day competition at the end of 2019. That success, Ebron said, allowed Courtroom5 to become “good friends with Google,” which she said “[has] been kind to us in a number of ways” that helped the program’s continuing growth.
Ebron also emphasized the wealth of support programs and competitions for start-ups in the Raleigh-Durham area. “It helps a great deal to be here in the Triangle … We have a very strong ecosystem for start-ups,” she said. She praised the NC Idea Foundation, the Center for Entrepreneurial Development and other resources.
According to Ebron, this fertile landscape also exists across the southeast U.S. as a whole. “I think the southeast as a whole is receiving a lot more attention from Silicon Valley and some investors who used to focus in those places.”
Despite the Success of Courtroom5, Its Path Hasn’t Been Easy
When asked when she second-guesses the progress of Courtroom5, Ebron spoke bluntly: “on a daily basis.” “Running a start-up is hard,” she said, comparing it to writing a dissertation. “You don’t know a whole lot about what you’re doing, frankly. You don’t know what the product is that solves your customers’ problem. And then you don’t know the best channels or ways to reach them and tell them about the solution you may have created for them.”
But, she explained, platforms like Courtroom5 that help ensure equal access to justice will become crucial going forward. “The billable-hour business model, in my opinion, is broken,” she told me. “And I think lawyers are going to have to sort of get with the program. We have a huge access-to-justice crisis in this country, and they’re a part of that problem.”
“We have a huge access-to-justice crisis in this country…”
She hopes that, going forward, lawyers will consider offering more “unbundled” services. This change would let a non-lawyer file simple documents on their own. But they could also turn to a lawyer for more complicated matters, like motions for summary judgment or complex discovery.
Why Affordable Access to Justice Matters For the Future
Courtroom5 exists for people who seek affordable, easy-to-use help, and Ebron is grateful for its impact in communities that need it. Although anyone can use Courtroom5’s resources, Ebron knows it’s important to ensure that “black and brown people and those who are disproportionately affected” by the country’s access-to-justice problems “have access to our resources.”
“Particularly in light of the social crises that we’re facing,” Ebron said, “it’s really important that we sure up our democratic instincts … And ultimately, that comes down to what happens in the courts,” she explained. “People need to see justice available in the courts, or they’re going to find it in the streets, and none of us wants that.
In fact, when asked about the future of Courtroom5, Ebron emphasized that targeted access: “We’ve got to find a way to reach the 20 million people who need our service today and every day. And, unfortunately, we see those numbers rising dramatically because of the pandemic, and the economic consequences because of it.” She continued, “We want to be in a place where we can help them get heard in court in ways that didn’t occur after the 2008 crisis.”
“We’ve got to find a way to reach the 20 million people who need our service today and everyday.”
“We’re growing fast,” Ebron said. “We’re redesigning our user experience to be even easier. That’s an ongoing challenge and task for us.” But at the moment, Courtroom5’s “primary challenge is making sure that we can … reach the people who need us and are going to need us going forward.”