It all started with the pesky section symbol.
About a year ago Brian Potts, a lawyer then working at Foley & Lardner in Madison, found himself getting frustrated when he would regularly have to pause in the middle of writing briefs to go about the cumbersome task of inserting section symbols. For Potts back then — as is true for many lawyers today — that procedure entailed a series of mouse clicks and keyboard strokes.
Potts, who specializes in energy and environmental law, had tried to set up his own keyboard shortcuts. Those efforts were always foiled, though, by Foley’s network, which would wipe out the changes whenever he restarted his computer.
Potts went through the usual stages of frustration. He cursed Microsoft Word and his firm’s IT department. He began to wonder why no one had come up with a simple button that could be used to insert section symbols and other legal marks with the stroke of a finger.
Then it dawned on him that he could be the inventor — not just of a button, but an entire keyboard custom-built for lawyers. The idea seemed so simple, he marveled that no one else had thought of it.
Worried that someone else could easily take his innovation and run with it, he did his best to keep quiet.
“I made a lot of people sign non-disclosure agreements, including good friends,” Potts said. “I didn’t make my wife sign one, but it was a big joke because I literally would not talk about the idea.”
About a year later, Potts’ proposed invention became a reality. With the help of a friend, Chase Means, as well as various investors, Potts founded a company called Pro-Boards LLC. Their product, the LegalBoard, went on sale on Jan. 5, the same day it was given a debut presentation at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show.
The reviews so far have largely been favorable. Various legal bloggers, including Robert Ambrogi of LawSites and Brendan Kenny of Lawyerist.com, have taken notice of the LegalBoard and given it their seal of approval.
According to a count Kenny made last week, LegalBoards has been sold in 48 states. Potts and Means said they have also received orders from Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., and Ontario, Canada.
Their first batch of keyboards is almost out of stock already, said Potts, who now works at Perkins Coie’s Madison office. The early indications suggest that the LegalBoard is meeting a long-felt need in the legal profession.
“The exposure we’ve gotten has definitely exceeded our expectations,” said Means, a patent lawyer who was one of the first to invest in Potts’ idea and is a co-founder of Pro-Boards.
How it works
The LegalBoard doesn’t require additional software. Just plug it into a USB port of a Windows computer, and you’re ready to go.
That plug-n-play system was a priority for both Means and Potts, who wanted to make sure the product would be easy to use for lawyers who might not know much about technology. That meant sacrificing the keyboard’s ability to work with both Mac OS and Windows, Means said. Windows won out because it had a bigger market. Also, Macs are more easily modified than PCs to have hotkeys, meaning there was a less of need for a Mac-compatible product.
Generally, the LegalBoard looks like a standard keyboard. The big exceptions are the keys both at the top of the board and on the number pad. By putting the keyboard into “legal mode,” users can type section symbols and words such as “plaintiff” or “defendant” with single keystrokes.
For Means, the best key is one that lets users toggle to and from Word’s “track changes” mode. For Potts, it’s one that allows lawyers to switch back and forth to footnotes.
“When you’re writing memos, you just end up footnoting a lot,” he said. “I know judges don’t like them.”
The LegalBoard sells for $65. Means and Potts say that it will pay for itself within the first 400 to 800 keystrokes.
To reach that estimate, they assumed that lawyers bill $300 per hour. They then noted that using the LegalBoard’s shortcuts can shave one to two seconds off the time needed to type special legal symbols and terms.
“That doesn’t even factor in the lawyer’s lost train of thought,” said Means. “I think that lost train of thought is something we can’t even adequately measure. It’s a very conservative estimate.”
Making a LegalBoard
Once he came up with the idea, Potts immediately enlisted the help of a friend who was a computer engineer. Within a month, they had a prototype, which was tested by 10 attorneys specializing in five to six different types of practice.
In the end, Potts estimates it has cost roughly $50,000 to turn his idea into reality. He and Means handled all the legal work, eliminating what would have otherwise been an expense. Five investors put in cash, and six did work in return for equity in the company.
The real difficulty, they said, was in finding the best way to manufacture the keyboard.
“When I had this idea, I thought, ‘I’ll be selling keyboards in two months,’” said Potts. “I found out that even in big companies, it takes 12 to 18 months to launch a product.”
Luckily for Potts, he knew an engineer who could help. The packaging, ordering and shipping of the product have all been automated.
“It has been a lot of fun, and it was a good learning experience to start a company,” he said. “My day job is more litigation. … I had to learn a lot more about corporate law.”
It looks like the LegalBoard will be going global — in more ways than one.
Means and Potts say they are hoping to respond to inquiries from overseas by setting up an international shipping system. The LegalBoard may eventually come in versions featuring languages other than English and with citation shortcuts better suited to other countries’ legal systems.
Potts and Means said that two days after their product went public, lawyers from five different countries were asking about the possibility of modification.
“That really wasn’t expected,” said Potts. “We’re going to work on that.”
Other possibilities include ergonomic, wireless and Mac-based versions of the LegalBoard.
And the law might only be the start.
Pro-Boards officials are also planning to consider the possibility creating keyboards tailored for use in medicine, engineering and other professions.
“There’s a lot of space on a keyboard going to waste for lawyers and other professions, too,” said Means.Follow @erikastrebel