Debt, equity, rewards and donations – those are the categories of crowdfunding that have emerged over the past decade, creating an industry that has raised over $8bn worldwide.
But despite the heady growth, the youth of crowdfunding means we’ve only just seen the start of what each of these categories can do in terms of disrupting existing organisational models – think venture capital, charities, banks.
CrowdJustice, founded and run by former Linklaters commercial litigator Julia Salasky, is transforming the legal industry. The platform, which launched in 2015, enables individuals to fund their legal action. You simply submit a case, then build a page to attract backers. You then work to attract those backers, before reaching your target and transferring the funds to your lawyer.
In a world where access to and transparency around redress isn’t always optimal, Salasky wants to put the public interest stories behind so many cases where people can see them, and help.
Last week, CrowdJustice launched in the US, its second jurisdiction after the UK. Over here, it was responsible for enabling campaign the “People’s Challenge to the Government on Art. 50: A Parliamentary Prerogative” to raise £170,000, with the second challenge raising funds on the platform now. Other trending cases include a challenge to the government’s support of fracking and a bid to stop a development on Plymouth Hoe. If you reach your target, CrowdJustice charges 5 per cent, plus 1 per cent VAT and 2 per cent to the payments processor.
I caught up with Salalsky to find out more.
Why did you set up CrowdJustice?
I spent some time on secondment in a legal aid clinic, then worked for the UN, and I worked with clients who really struggled to access the legal system. While I was at the UN the idea for CrowdJustice just crystallised: why is it so difficult to access the legal system when it’s a social good, and we’ve got the technology that could facilitate that? There was this gap that could so easily be corrected online.
Can you tell us a bit more about how it works?
To raise funds for your case, you need to have already instructed a lawyer. We independently verify that – confirming with the lawyer and checking that they’re regulated. Then you can start drafting your page. Cases are best framed as human stories: an event has happened to change the status quo; something about what has happened is unlawful or unjust, or the person seeks redress of some kind; and using the law will put that individual – or a broader community – in a better position.
It’s really about explaining the legal case in a very simple way – in a way that explains to people what you’re trying to achieve by using the law.
That’s not to say that a case has to have broader social impact – it could be a very personal case, for example that you were discriminated against at work – in which case your backers may well be people proximate to you who want to help you because they care about you. Meanwhile, cases that hit on broader issues might attract many more backers – almost 4,000 people backed The People’s Challenge to Brexit, for instance – and all of those £10 backers can say they truly played a part in history.
When someone’s case goes live on the platform, there are many things they can do to drive the success of the crowdfunding – but social networks like Facebook tend to be very powerful force multipliers. Once the funds are raised, they go directly to the lawyer’s client account on behalf of the claimant.
We encourage people to keep backers updated. It’s a nice way for backers to feel that their donation has made a difference.
You’ve just launched in the US. How difficult is it to move the model across borders?
It’s a huge milestone for us. Crowdfunding is predicated on lots of people being interested and spreading the word. Particularly in the current climate, it feels like the right time to enable people to get behind things that matter to them.
Technically speaking, we have had to make some changes. But in general, donation-based crowdfunding is not really jurisdiction specific. It’s exciting to see cross-border support for different cases.
In the US, there has never been so much outpouring of support for the role of lawyers and the rule of law. The first case we launched with last week highlights the real need for access to the legal system.
There’s something special about not only connecting those raising funds with backers but also involving the service provider (lawyer). Does Crowdjustice go beyond donation-based crowdfunding?
We definitely see ourselves as a crowdfunding platform, but we also have a wider purpose. We help people build communities around cases. We’re also, more generally, trying to create a platform that allows people access to the legal system in a completely novel way.
Could CrowdJustice eventually help drive down the cost of accessing the law?
I’m not sure – but having access to information and transparency around other cases is certainly helpful. If you’re a layperson who wants to take a case to court, CrowdJustice gives you an opportunity to see what others who may have had similar legal issues might have done. In general, legal services have always been hard to procure. We want to change that.
You’re expecting your first baby. What’s it like running a startup alongside starting a family?
I have devoted 100 per cent of my energy and my life to CrowdJustice since we started, and now that “balance” is inevitably going to change. It is both daunting and exciting. But I am confident that it is possible to be a successful leader at CrowdJustice and to have a fulfilling family life.
In the tech world, where there are so many men and not that many female role models, I have been lucky enough to find women – and men – who are hugely supportive of me and CrowdJustice and who have encouraged me to succeed in building a business and a family at the same time. Having a great team around me makes all the difference.