CAIRO: As more people seek expert assistance to resolve the legal issues they run into in everyday life, there has been an exponential rise in the need for legal counseling.
Although free access to the judicial system and legal aid are basic constitutional rights in most countries in the Middle East and North Africa, exercising those rights continues to present challenges.
This is where a group of entrepreneurs hope to make a real difference to people’s lives.
They have developed Avocato, an online platform and mobile app that enables people in Egypt and Saudi Arabia to obtain reliable legal advice through their smartphones.
They believe this offers a more convenient alternative to the traditional route of choosing and retaining a lawyer, and helps to avoid some of the issues that people fear might arise as a result.
“More than 50 per cent (of people) give up their rights simply because they think that pursuing them means resorting to a lawyer, and that a lawyer means entering into problems and a (legal) case,” said Ahmed Maher, Avocato’s e-commerce manager.
Nevertheless, he added, the number of people in need of legal advice is growing.
“The number of cases in Egypt has reached more than 60 million and more than 10 million cases are added annually, based on the latest judicial statistical reports issued by the Ministry of Justice and the results of the annual bulletin of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics,” Maher said.
Avocato was launched in April 2018 by Maher, Abdul Rahman Al-Jazzar, Mohammed Omar and Abdul Rahim Osama.
The company, which is self-funded, offers a range of legal services, including remote legal consultations, legal-care subscription packages that cover consultations and legal representation for a monthly fee, and the option to book an in-person appointment at an affiliated lawyer’s office.
While funding and talent acquisition remain common challenges for businesses in the region, Maher believes Avocato might be unique in that it has also taken on the particularly daunting task of allaying peoples’ fears and anxieties about the legal system, in an attempt to change a mindset that equates the simple act of obtaining legal advice with becoming embroiled in long-running court battles.
“The fundamental challenge was to create sufficient awareness of the importance of the services provided,” Maher said. “The general perception is that the law is equal to a case — but in reality, law means protection, law means counseling, law means rights.”
The Avocato team, said Maher, researched the issue for more than three years through an awareness campaign about the importance of legal counseling. They targeted young people in particular, for example at university events and conferences devoted to investment and intellectual development, and sent out questionnaires that helped gauge public awareness of legal advice and the potential demand for it.
Another area the company is attempting to streamline through its app is legal specialization.
Correctly matching a client with a lawyer who has the specialist knowledge needed to resolve a problem is not only to the mutual benefit of both parties, said Maher, it also gives the platform a competitive edge.
How? By reducing wait times and wasted effort, while providing a superior customer experience compared with the traditional approach to hiring a lawyer.
This raises the question of whether Avocato is a more cost-effective option.
“We are not in competition with the lawyer or legal institution,” said Maher.
“Rather, we create a competitive advantage for the customers so that they can choose between the most qualified experts according to their priorities.
“We are an intermediate electronic platform between legal services providers and customers with a legal need.”
Maher is satisfied with Avocato’s progress in the two years since launch. The company has attracted 1,900 clients and recruited 2,230 lawyers as verified service providers.
It is still too early, he said, to speculate about whether Avocato is beginning to usher in the wider societal change in attitudes about legal representation that its founders hope for.
In the meantime, he added, they are looking forward to breaking even as the app gains more traction, and are considering more nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council region and North Africa for possible expansion opportunities.
- This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.