Raj Abhyanker wants to change the public's perception of lawyers, streamline part of the legal process and resurrect the "Mainstreet Bookstore" business model -- all by opening a retail store in downtown Palo Alto that sells legal advice, books and tablets.
Abhyanker is the CEO of LegalForce, a company that aims to improve the access between lawyers and the public by using technology. He hopes his store, the LegalForce BookFlip, will transform the way the public looks at lawyers.
"We want people to realize that lawyers, like doctors, can provide help throughout various stages of life," said Abhyanker, who has a law degree, an MBA and a master's degree in electrical engineering. "Few people know where to turn for legal help. We solve this by letting the public walk into a major retail location for help."
The store, which will open across the street from the Apple store on University Avenue, will be open seven days a week to provide walk-in access to lawyers, who will give initial advice on personal and business topics. A 15-minute appointment with a lawyer will cost $45. Subsequent appointments can then be set up with LegalForce-affiliated specialists.
"The sweaty palms come from the first visit to a lawyer," he said. "If you're sick, you go to urgent care. If you need tax help, you go see a tax professional. There's no easy way to walk in and see a lawyer."
Despite downtown Palo Alto's high lease rates (BookFlip's 8,000-square-foot space costs $50,000 a month), Abhyanker said he thinks being within walking distance of dozens of Palo Alto's startups is worth the investment. He hopes representatives from startups will walk into the store for help to secure a patent, protect a patent or get legal help with some other business-related issue.
There will be different fees for people who want an application filled out entirely by a lawyer, with a lawyer's help or merely reviewed by a lawyer.
Abhyanker said large bookstores and electronics stores are finding it difficult to survive in the electronics age. People go to them, find out what they want, and go home and buy online. The result, he said, is the loss the "Mainstreet bookstore," like Borders Books and Music in Palo Alto, which closed in September 2011.
"Consumers lack the sanctuary that bookstores offer," he said. "People miss them; they miss going in, getting knowledge and relaxing. We want to change perception of lawyers in the U.S. by making law accessible in a comfortable retail area, while vitalizing bookstores without losing the sanctuary feel."
The three-story building will also include a seminar room, which Abhyanker hopes will help build trust with the community. The store will offer free classes on topics ranging from how to write a patent application to how to deal with a death in the family. Also, the space will be available for community groups.
LegalForce is opening the BookFlip with no venture-capital funding and has already invested more than $2 million of its own money into the design and creation of the store. The company's 2012 revenue after built-in government fees was slightly more than $7 million.
"Depending on other people's money is very stressful," he said. "Whether we take funding (later) or not, it has to be aligned with our goals."
LegalForce was formerly known as Trademarkia, a Mountain View trademark law firm that has filed more than 23,000 trademarks since 2009 with the help of its trademark search engine, which he said attracts more than 1.8 million unique page views a month.
If the BookFlip itself doesn't seem ambitious enough, Abhyanker hopes to eventually get into publishing, selling LegalForce-branded legal self-help books and ebooks that allow users online access to lawyers to help.