Frustration for lawyer leads to (key)stroke of genius

Erika Strebel, BridgeTower Media Newswires

It all started with the pesky section symbol.

About a year ago, Foley & Lardner lawyer Brian Potts found himself getting annoyed when he regularly would have to pause in the middle of writing briefs to insert section symbols, a procedure that entailed a series of mouse clicks.

Potts, who specializes in energy and environmental law in Madison, Wisconsin, 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 a single keystroke.

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 would hijack 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 says. “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 presented at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show.

The reviews so far have been largely 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 Kenny, LegalBoards has been sold in 48 states. Potts and Means say they also have received orders from Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., and Ontario, Canada.

Their first batch of keyboards has almost sold out, says 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,” says Means, a patent lawyer and 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. Windows won out because it had a bigger market. Also, Macs are more easily modified than PCs to have hotkeys, meaning there was less of a 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 says. “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 assume that lawyers bill $300 an hour. They then note 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,” Means says. “I think that lost train of thought is something we can’t even adequately measure. It’s a very conservative estimate.”

From idea to reality

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 cost roughly $50,000 to turn his idea into reality. He and Means handled all the legal work, eliminating what otherwise would have been an expense. Five investors put in cash, and six did work for equity in the company.

The real difficulty, they say, 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,’” Potts says. “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 says. “My day job is more litigation. … I had to learn a lot more about corporate law.”

Just the start?

If all goes according to plan, LegalBoard will be going global — in more ways than one.

Means and Potts say they hope to respond to inquiries from overseas by setting up an international shipping system. The LegalBoard eventually may come in versions featuring languages other than English and with citation shortcuts better suited to other countries’ legal systems.

Potts and Means say 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,” Potts says. “We’re going to work on that.”

Other possibilities include ergonomic, wireless and Mac-based versions of the LegalBoard.

And the law might be just the start.

Pro-Boards also plans to consider the possibility of 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,” Means says.

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Erika Strebel is a reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal, a sister publication of Lawyers Weekly.

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