While last week’s Duke Law Tech Lab Demo Day was the first in the nascent Duke-based accelerator’s history, it signaled the start of an effort grand in both ambition and scope.

Seven startups from across the country—with specialties ranging from machine learning to Microsoft Suite training for less tech savvy lawyers—were represented in a cohort of companies disrupting the field of law with technology.

It’s a big opportunity. CB Insights reports a generally upward trend in capital raised and deals made over the past several years within the legal technology sector. In 2016, legal tech oriented startups raised $155 million across 67 deals with the latter metric a new record.

With Duke’s highly-ranked law and business graduate programs and the proximity of a growing and thriving startup community, organizers believe Durham is a great home for a project like the Tech Lab and a growing bank of legal tech firms.

The first step toward that happened last Friday night at Duke’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship space in Durham, where the teams celebrated their work in the three-month program and delivered pitches to an audience of Duke Law faculty, students, business leaders and others.

Demo Day had real and impactful prizes at stake—first place took home $5,000, second place $2,000, third $1,000 and the audience favorite left the event with $500. Beyond that, these startups are prepped to launch or scale products to aid lawyers, politicians or practices, and in some cases raise money from outside investors.

Tech Lab background

While the Tech Lab and Demo Day only became concrete in January 2017, plans for the “light-touch legal tech pre-accelerator” began a year ago. The program is the brainchild of Duke Law alums Bill Warren, an associate at WilmerHale in New York City, and Jeff Ward, an associate professor who runs Duke Law School’s Start-Up Ventures Clinic.

The program was born out of a need to fill the “vacuum that exists around vehicles to push legal tech forward”, says Tech Lab Managing Director John Fallone, who wears many hats, also including lawyer, Duke Law LLM student, Y Combinator veteran and founder of the Lincoln Network.

He described the mission of this niche program as ‘to incubate and support cutting-edge technology that will change the way legal services are delivered in the future” with sister goals to “leverage Duke Law School’s network” and “drive legal technology to the forefront… which will in turn increase access to legal services for all”.

The seven companies were sourced from Duke Law’s national network in law and business, and were chosen from hundreds of applications.

The accelerator program is fairly low commitment but with potentially impactful rewards. The participants meet once a week with Tech Lab faculty for an hour-long video conference. Participants can workshop and brainstorm, interview business or legal experts, or just talk startups with their time together.

Companies also benefit from the expansive network of Duke faculty and alumni, a valuable resource for the niche but growing sector of legal technology startups.

While entrants into the Tech Lab Spring 2017 cohort were voted into the program by Duke Law network, four outside judges picked the best prize winners last Friday. The arbiters of the night were attorney and entrepreneur Ginny Allen, Mike Saber of Raleigh-based Smith & Anderson, Ken Heaps of Latham & Watkins and HQ Raleigh director Liz Tracy.

While the seven groups in the competition had worked for months in preparation for Demo Day, Mother Nature decided to shake up the situation. With high winds in the Southeast grounding planes and causing delays, several groups were down a member—and the unlucky representative from Procertas was forced to give an amusing video presentation recorded in the middle of a crowded Texas airport.

The judges took longer than scheduled to debate the winners of the competition. However, according to Fallone and others interviewed, TrustBooks was the clear winner.

First place: TrustBooks

TrustBooks, a Raleigh-based accounting software company founded by Chad Todd, won first place for its solution to a big challenge for lawyers.

Attorneys are mandated to hold client funds in trust accounts, with smaller firms usually tasking resident lawyers to handle them. Mismanagement of these accounts is “the main reason for disbarment”, Todd explained, and until now there haven’t been simple tools to manage these trusts safely.

Todd, former systems engineer and owner of Training Concepts, remarked that trust accounting work is ”the thing they [attorneys] hate the most, it’s the thing they don’t get paid to do, and it’s the thing that can ruin them”.

That’s where TrustBooks comes in. Its mission is to be the “go-to tool for trust management” for small or solo law firms. The subscription-based software has already worked its way into 28 states with Todd crediting the dire need for such a service and his “clear message and purpose” as reasons for the win and overall early success.

Second place: Skopos Labs

Coming in second was the A.I. and analytics company Skopos Labs, presented by one of its Research and Development employees—Elizabeth Stone. The Nashville startup was born out of a collaboration between Vanderbilt Law Professor J.B. Ruhl and Doctoral Candidate of Engineering John J. Nay from the same institution.

The machine-learning based data analytics firm was described by Fallone as having “the most potential to impact law and society as a whole” of the seven present that night, and despite a silver medal finish, Stone was hounded by spectators and participants after the awards ceremony was over.

Skopos Labs uses a neural network model to comb through text documents such as bills or contracts to evaluate how likely they are to pass through the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate or through rigorous legal review. Stone says that so far, the company has 99% accuracy in predicting the passage or rejection of legislation, making it the “most accurate tool for tracking bills”.

The highly advanced model includes factors like “legislative slant and natural disasters” in its text analysis platform, and correctly predicted the final outcome of high-profile legislation like “Trumpcare”.

The company has already attracted some valuable partners and endorsements, working with
Slate, The Hill, Govtrack, the Clinton campaign, and PR group Media Matters.

Skopos’s current public offerings consist of web app PredictGov.com, which displays real time probabilities of legislative works passing into law, but Stone explained the company is looking into utilizing their proprietary tech for uses like market research or lead generation.

Third place: Procertas

Third place was Procertas, a computer literacy evaluation platform designed for and by lawyers and legal professionals. Claiming that “proficient in Microsoft Office” is the biggest lie told on the Internet, the company has set out to evaluate and train users in computer literacy and productivity tools.

Procertas provides users small tasks like reviewing contracts in order to test their understanding of some of the deeper functionality of their chosen tech tools, like within-page searches or cross referencing.

The company already has several learning modules on the market, with law schools and state Bar Associations buying in. While current offerings primarily include training with Word, PDF and Excel documents, principal Casey Flaherty hinted it’ll soon add Outlook, Powerpoint and other common platforms.

Audience choice: vTestify

As judges deliberated after the pitches, the audience texted in their votes for audience choice a la American Idol. In the end vTestify, a Cary-based video conferencing platform designed to add visuals and voice to legal depositions and testimonials, won that $500 prize.

vTestify, as explained by director of business development Ray Hadad, exists to add feeling and emotion to written testimony, which he claims is both absent and necessary in text documents. He cited the importance of inflection and cadence in understanding testimony, and used the stark difference between “don’t stop!” and “don’t, stop!” as an example.

Branding the company as “the future of testimony”, Hadad believes this platform can reduce travel costs, provide more accurate and informational depositions, and carve out a profitable niche within the court reporting and tech fields.

Fallone calls year one of the program a successful experiment, laying ground for a strong future at Duke.

“Legal technology is notoriously slow at adapting to the market, so Duke has this wonderful opportunity to advance the technology, better educate students, and create better lawyers,” Fallone says.