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Tech innovations to disrupt legal industry

Angela Wanjohi, founder of uwakili.com, an online legal service platform. PHOTO | diana ngila | NMG
Angela Wanjohi, founder of uwakili.com, an online legal service platform. PHOTO | diana ngila | NMG 

Nairobi-based lawyer Angela Wanjohi had long watched with concern as small businesses struggled to get even the most basic legal documentation in order.

This was the inspiration behind uwakili.com, an online legal service platform that she founded which allows businesses and individuals to create basic legal documents.

Her platform allows individuals to create wills, tenancy agreements, chama loan agreements and even domestic worker contracts— for a fee.

Document templates are also available to take businesses through the process of changing their names; creating employment contracts; and filing annual returns.

The value proposition for the site is speed and cost-efficiency. Since her platform went live in April, she has received 1,000 registered customers and processed about 350 documents.

“People are always looking for faster legal services to fulfil their needs and uwakili.com not only offers them cheaply, it offers them faster,” says the 30-year- old advocate of the High Court.

Tech startups that focus on the legal sector are blossoming in Kenya but they are yet to become as common as those that focus on health, agriculture or even education.

So Uwakili, and other businesses like it, are barely scratching the surface of the possibilities for innovation in law.

Tech’s delay in  “disrupting” the legal sector has been partly attributed to the risk-averse nature and the strict regulatory framework of practising law in Kenya and across the world.  

Yet, the Hague Institute for Innovation Law (HiiL) says that technology could play a crucial role in reaching the estimated four billion people that do not have access to justice across the world.  The innovators who have ventured into this area, HiiL says, are already making a difference.

“Through technology, we’ve seen a noteworthy rise in innovations that provide effective and efficient legal help. Technology helps often justice entrepreneurs reach more customers, in a shorter period of time, that would have otherwise been possible,” the organisation told Digital Business in a statement.

While the practice of law is conservative, there is no way the sector can avoid the tide of technology, according to the Law Society of Kenya vice president, Ms Faith Waigwa. She, however, insists that services rendered through technology still need to adhere to the rules set out for the industry.

“Of importance though is to ensure that the legal services being rendered on the innovative platforms and apps are paid for in accordance with the Advocates Remuneration order,” she said.

With more prevalent mobile technology, change is nigh in the legal sector especially if entrepreneurs can demonstrate the advantages of automating processes.  

For instance, while ordinarily it would take a minimum of seven days to have an employment contract drafted, uwakili.com allows the same document to be created, signed and ready within minutes.

There are other examples of legal tech innovations that have been launched in Kenya recently. Kituo Cha Haki in June 2016 launched M-Haki, an SMS-based legal advice service.

Bailoutbuddy is a mobile application developed by Alex Murutu that works like an insurance cover such that a traffic offender is guaranteed bail of an amount payable under their selected plan.

But part of the challenge for businesses is capital. HiiL tries to solve this puzzle through the Innovating Justice Challenge through which it seeks out startups it can accelerate and fund.

In 2016, HiiL awarded Sh4.5 million in grants and provided expert membership to businesses through the Innovating Justice Challenge.  Among the Kenyan startups supported were Sauti, a tool that gives businesses access to information on trading procedure.  

Famalia, another application, provides information on succession cases through SMS notifications. KnowAfrique is a mobile platform that archives legal information while FarmingBay helps curb contract fraud in Limuru.

In the 2017 chapter of the challenge, HiiL says it has received 600 applications from across the globe, 95 of which are from Kenya. The awards will be given in December. 

Interest in these grants suggests that more investment, and perhaps greater buy-in from the government and the legal professionals, will be needed if Kenyan innovators are to disrupt justice as they have other parts of our daily life.

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