Feature Interview

Talking Legalese With Eitan Stern, Part 1

When someone says the word “lawyer” do you immediately think of someone who wears cool sneakers and DJs at festivals part-time? The likelihood of that is slim. And yet Eitan Stern, founder of Legalese and corporate lawyer, does.

A self-confessed “public law kid” who did his thesis on Animal Rights, I was quite interested to find out how corporate law became Stern’s focal point and how his creative legal agency Legalese was formed.

TX: So tell me how Legalese came to be?

ES: I had a bit of an entrepreneurial background before I went into commercial law. I always lived in these two worlds – I was around the creative industry but I was also a lawyer. So I was too nerdy in the one group and too edgy in the other.

Eventually I had this idea to merge the two worlds. It was something that I thought about for a while. I wanted to see if I could be a lawyer for the creative industry. So I left my job and launched Legalese which is a creative legal agency. Essentially it’s s legal consultancy and services for the creative sector.

You know there’s a whole creative industry in Cape Town that falls under the radar of the corporate sector – but me and you we know there is a lot of action in this town. People are doing cool shit and making lots of money doing it. But they’re completely un-serviced by lawyers. So I launched this firm to try cater for our industry and a large part of what I do is focus on how to make this service accessible and affordable – pricing it differently and making it more relevant.

TX: So I didn’t know that you were one half of Jews For Techno. So being a creative yourself, do you find that the services that you’re offering now, you encountered those issues as a creative?

ES: I am part of Jews For Techno. Guilty. You see what I’ve realised is that being a good lawyer is not good enough, you need to understand the industry. And I was in this fortunate position where I did understood the industry and I understood the law.

Traditional law firms often won’t touch a matter without a few thousand rand deposit and even once they do, you may not even be able to understand the work they produce because the language is intentionally complex. Moreover the risks faced by start-ups, creatives and musicians are not the same as those faced by the corporate sector. So what we do is look at the actual client, her industry and actual risks she is facing. From there we create a solution which is understandable and useful in reality.

And that’s something that’s a constant learning curve – how do we service our clients better? How do we get musicians to use lawyers? How do we price it and package it correctly? We have fun doing it and so far our clients have been receptive to it because it’s innovative and relatable, but also professional and reliable.

TX: I’m really interested in the marketing aspect of when you launched Legalese. Like you said you’ve got over 120 clients and it’s done really well – was that success through market spend at all or was it through your reputation and word of mouth?

ES: I think it was both. Firstly it was the right place at the right time. I’d thought about this for a long time and I knew there was a gap, I didn’t know how receptive people would be to the gap though. Once people saw what we were doing and that we were doing it well, the phone just started ringing. Whenever it stops, I do a little more marketing.

A big part of it is also an exercise in branding. There was a budget spend on designers and that sort of stuff but I didn’t do a full marketing campaign.

More important than marketing was to actually offer a service which fitted the gap between creative and professional. The creative in me found this part really fun – I got to play with the branding and design and see if I could communicate the message in my head to the audience.

We continue playing with it all the time – from our office space, to dress code, to stickers around town. It can be interesting, it just always needs to be professional. Some people want a lawyer in sneakers, some people want a lawyer in jeans. But no one wants a lawyer in flip flops.

TX: I love the Legalese website. In the FAQ section you say, if you get arrested don’t call me because I won’t have bail money for you.

ES: That actually happened. As a law student you kind of do anything legal you can do just to get experience. I would often get phone calls on Saturday night when someone got arrested. I consciously put a stop to it because I was becoming the go-to guy. That was many years ago. I really don’t enjoy criminal law – while everyone deserves a defence, my preference is working with people building things, not breaking them.

TX: The website also has a price list. Is that normal for a law firm?

It’s not really normal – but I wanted to break down the notion that lawyers are unaffordable. All of a sudden people could see, wait, that’s actually not expensive and I really need that service. I also pitched my rates the same as any other service which start-ups may need. We’re priced the same as a good designer or PR agency. The rates are certainly cheaper than traditional law firms.

We also focus on packaging services together. People like it when they know what they’re in for and then they can budget and plan accordingly. As an example, we have Al Bairre on our Professional Musician Retainer Package which is great. R2500 per month gets them their in house legal department and we’re doing some interesting work for them. They are a band to watch!

You know, 5 years ago it was unheard of for a band to have a manager. Today mangers are common place. This happened because the industry decided that there was enough going on and there was room for growth.

I see the legal thing as one more step of growth in the industry. For me it’s not just about doing legal work and making money, it’s about contributing to the industry. If I can help the whole system work better, then I’m really having a very good time.

Read Part 2 here.

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