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Bound for legal tech

Cross Examined
|Written By Tim Wilbur
Bound for legal tech
Photo by Alexia Kapralos

Puneet Tiwari always knew he wanted to be a tech innovator despite the uncertainties.

Launching a legal tech startup is not for the faint of heart. Many lawyers dream about starting their own company and making millions on their idea, but they are often neither suited to nor taught how to do this.

But for Puneet Tiwari, a lawyer who took the plunge in 2016 and started Evichat, a legal tech startup that helps lawyers collect digital evidence from mobile devices, social media and websites, his path makes perfect sense. Tiwari deals with the inevitable uncertainty that he faces by drawing on the experiences of many others in his life who have followed a similar path.

Tiwari grew up in Ottawa and was raised by a single mother. “I had a good childhood, although being South Asian, it’s uncommon for there to be a single-parent household.” His grandparents also helped raise him, and his extended family has been a key anchor for his professional growth. His uncle launched a technology startup that was acquired by Texas Instruments, where his uncle still works, and Tiwari has other relatives that have had successful tech-startup exits. “I’ve seen these journeys over and over again and I figured out it’s a repeatable process and it’s just regular people doing it.”

He was surrounded by technology from a young age and was clearly an early adopter. “Growing up, I had this big, old, clunky computer and a bunch of computer games and I would be playing around with it all the time. And we also always had the latest computer growing up. That’s how [my interest] started, with the computer games. When I got to high school, it was still in the area where not everyone had a computer at home so it gave me a huge advantage when doing projects and assignments.”

Despite his affinity to technology, Tiwari always wanted to be a lawyer and went to law school at Western Michigan University after his undergraduate degree in Canada. He didn’t realize at the time that the law school environment would not be as tech friendly as he was. “I remember our research and writing class. The first few months, we weren’t allowed to use computers for legal research. They would force us to go to the library so we would learn how to do it the old-school way. When I actually started articling, we had Westlaw; I never went to a legal library even once.”

In his last term, Tiwari clerked with Judge Rosemarie Aquilina in the 30th Circuit Court. Aquilina, who is now well known as the judge who sentenced Dr. Larry Nassar in the U.S.

Tiwari’s return to Canada was both fortuitous and terribly timed. The market for law students was not good and for a foreign-trained student it was doubly challenging. The National Committee on Accreditation exams for foreign law grads would take about a year and he had no luck finding a paying job. He was forced to volunteer at a law firm in Mississauga, Ont. to get experience, drafting claims and conducting legal research for free.

But adversity, as they say, is often the seed for creativity. As a law student, Tiwari already knew he wanted to be doing something creative with technology.

“While I was in Michigan, I did see Peter Carayiannis from Conduit Law speak about the things he was doing at Conduit and it really inspired me and that’s when the light bulb went off that you can combine technology and law and you might come up with something,” he says.

So, he got in touch with Carayiannis when he moved to Toronto and asked for his advice. “He was kind enough to invite me into his office and meet with me and just give me tips and advice on how I can go about finding an articling position, starting my law career and how to make sure I use technology and try to practise new law.”

Tiwari continued to look for a paid job, and he eventually ended up at the doorstep of another legal innovator — Shelby Austin. Austin, who founded ATD Legal, an e-discovery alternative legal service provider that was eventually acquired by Deloitte, initially turned him down.

“I really wanted to work at ATD. I was reading about all the great things that they were doing and I applied and I was told, ‘Well, apply again when you’re accredited’,” Tiwari recounts. “I wouldn’t take no for an answer and I responded saying ‘Well, no, I could work for you now doing anything that you might have available.’ So, then they called me in for an interview and I talked about how I like legal technology and I’m really eager to please. And, so, I started there later that week as their law clerk.”

Tiwari’s tenacity came in handy in other ways as well. He recounts several instances where lawyers he approached for an articling gig were dismissive of his foreign education, and “the articling crisis was at its highest peak.” But he eventually landed a position at Kesarwani Law Office in Etobicoke, Ont.

The area of law he enjoyed most was employment, but he wasn’t satisfied with simply doling out advice to the clients who showed up at the door. He suggested to his articling principal, Rahul Kesarwani, that the firm’s website needed some improvements. Tiwari created a blog and flat-fee pricing and put both on the website. He did a location search of other law firms in the neighbourhood and didn’t find anything. As soon the new website launched, Kesarwani Law Office shot up to the first page of Google and the phone started ringing non-stop.

Despite this success, Tiwari’s real moment of clarity came when he started practising as an associate at the firm. “I noticed almost all of my clients were bringing me evidence from their mobile device, whether it was text messages, whether it was somebody’s Twitter page, Facebook page or they were forwarding me Gmail emails. [It could be that] someone’s boss was harassing an employee, the employee called me and then forwarded me 20 emails on a Sunday evening. If you get one or two screenshots, it’s totally manageable. But when you get above five screenshots, it becomes difficult to manage.”

Tiwari then developed the idea that is now Evichat. It was not so much a “eureka” moment as a problem he realized he needed to fix. “I wanted to find a solution and I was willing to pay for it. So, I looked all over the internet to see if I could find something but there was nothing available that a small firm like ours could use. There were solutions out there that were incredibly expensive and they were used by the FBI and other government agencies.”

Tiwari then drew on his family again — this time his cousin Nilesh Pandey, who is an engineer — and asked if he could build something. The cousins then asked people in the tech industry and other lawyers what they thought and only received positive feedback. Pandey began building the prototype and, once it was ready, they applied to the Legal Innovation Zone, a legal tech incubator in Toronto.

After working on the product part time for a few more months, both Tiwari and Pandey quit their jobs in February 2017. “That’s one of the hardest decisions in the whole startup world is when you leave your full-time gig and move to the startup full time.”

But, with the required optimism of a startup founder, Tiwari says they “never looked back …  My cousin and I would always throw around ideas, since we were younger, just for fun or to see if we could maybe have a startup one day. We looked at each other [at that time] and thought, OK, we think this is it.”

Tiwari’s path, with its twists and turns, was also in many ways straight. He continued to seek feedback and advice from others on a similar path — be it legal innovators or his family in tech — and stayed focused despite the many challenges around him.

The difficulties, however, are never over and the challenges have only grown.

“It’s really hard to remain focused on certain things [now]. There’s funding. There’s revenue. There’s product. There’s features. There’s so many things to think about. And I think founders are always thinking about getting that next round of funding, but really the main goal is revenue and we need to push Evichat to get more clients and I think once you know that keeps growing. Everything else will fall into place.”

Not for the faint of heart indeed.