Pictured above: Mira Lee and Brian Lee
Before Brian Lee founded LegalZoom, ShoeDazzle and The Honest Company he was a lawyer. And well, he knew he just wasn’t cut out for work at a law firm.
“I always knew I wasn’t a good lawyer; I was probably the worst lawyer there,” said Lee, speaking at Be Great Fest 2014. “I knew I wasn’t going to stay. You look around at the people who start with you, and I’m looking at them and they are smarter then me, they work harder then me, and they actually like the law. And so I had three x’s against me.”
Had it not been for his unhappy start as an attorney, Lee may not have become the serial entrepreneur he is today. Perhaps because he didn't look at practicing law the way his colleagues did, Lee had a career changing insight.
One day Lee was asked by a partner at his law firm to draw up simple incorporation documents.
“I saw the billing on it and it was $2,000. And I look back to my partner and said ‘It only took me 20 minutes,” said Lee.
“Well that’s our standard fee for incorporating,” said the partner.
“And right there I was like that is a lot of margin in law!” said Lee.
Lee probably wasn’t the first to make this observation. It just was no one could do anything about it. When people needed legal work they had to go to a lawyer and pay up.
Such were the days before the Internet. Lee knew the web opened up the potential to distribute legal work in ways that weren’t possible before. He also now knew certain types of legal documents could be created cheaply, sold for less than a typical lawyer’s fee and for more than they cost to make. With this in mind, Lee left his firm with another partner, Brian Liu, and started LegalZoom.
It would have been a wonderfully quick success, except there was a big missing piece. Being that it was the year 2001, it wasn’t the best time to start a new Internet company. Investors were still hungover from the bursting of the Internet bubble in 1999 and many people did not trust Internet companies with their credit cards. Besides, after hundred of years of taking their legal needs to paper and pen law firms, why should people trust their legal needs would be fulfilled over the internet?
LegalZoom, the idea, was only half of what it needed to be. For the company to be a success it needed a way to inspire people’s confidence.
“We realized that we had to get someone that people knew to be front and center for LegalZoom,” said Lee.
“So we came up with a list and the number one person was Robert Shapiro, the attorney, because he was just coming off the OJ Simpson trial and everyone in the country knew him,” said Lee. “Maybe not liked him, but at least they knew him.”
Despite calling on everyone he knew Lee could not get an introduction.
So he did what people did back then, he called 411. He got a phone number for someone name Robert Shapiro in Century City.
“I had a voice mail written out. I was going to leave him a voicemail. This was like 10 o’clock at night,” said Lee. The only problem was when Lee called that number someone picked up the phone.
"Robert Shapiro how can I help you?” someone said.
“Robert Shapiro, the attorney?’” said Lee.
“‘Yes this is Robert Shapiro,’” Shapiro said
“I have a business idea I want to run by you,” said Lee.
“I am not interested,” said Shapiro, about to hang-up.
But before he could, Lee shouted “Wait!”
Lee is softspoken and warm, so shouting at strangers is not typical of him.
"Something came over me," said Lee. "I think hearing the desperation in my voice he said, “'You’ve got two minutes.'”
In those two minutes Lee laid out the entire vision for LegalZoom.
“I hear a thousand ideas all the time and you know I actually really like this one,” said Shapiro. “So why don’t you call back tomorrow at a normal time and set up a lunch meeting.”
Shapiro joined on as a co-founder and became the public persona of LegalZoom. The site didn’t soar right away; in fact, early on it had a lot of trouble attracting investment, and relied on money from friends and family. However, slowly at first and then with a little help from paid search advertising LegalZoom grew tremendously. Today it is one of Los Angeles’ most noteworthy tech successes.
Lee would later grow restless at LegalZoom and leave to form ShoeDazzle with his wife Mira Lee.
The lessons about margins and celebrity endorsements learned at LegalZoom didn't leave Lee. ShoeDazzle, a shoe subscription service that sells designer style shoes at department store prices, was co-founded with celebrity Kim Kardashian. (Robert Kardashian, Kim’s father, worked with Robert Shapiro on OJ Simpson’s 1995 murder trial.)
After that, Lee co-founded The Honest Company, a child safe consumer goods company, with celebrity Jessica Alba. The formula that made LegalZoom work has since become Brian Lee’s trademark. If LegalZoom was about realizing “a lot of margin in law!" with the help of a celebrity, Brian Lee's latest companies are about realizing a lot of margin in consumer goods and fashion with the help of a celebrity.
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