Samuel Witherspoon, the founder and CEO of Miralaw, an Ottawa-based start up committed to increasing peoples’ access to legal information, which is also responsible for Thistoo and Compass, has a problem. “I have a serious [ problem], called scope creep,” said Sam when asked about how the name Thistoo, the title of Miralaw’s online divorce resource, came about. His scope creep caused him to consistently arrive at the company’s office, located at 100 Sparks Street, every morning with a new idea to expand the staff’s current plans. Sam stated, “I’d always ask ‘Oh, can we add this too’ and so [the name] is like an inside joke [but] it also lined up fairly nicely with some of the resources we’ve built.”
Sam’s desire to shift and change plans while they’re still in development might stem from his engineering background. He studied engineering at the University of Guelph and then went on to consult for two years but decided eventually that consulting was not his calling. “[I was doing] ultimately what felt like a lot of legal work but not getting paid like a lawyer,” he confessed. So, Sam took his LSAT while he was still consulting and then went on to attend the University of Calgary’s Law School. He originally planned on going into environmental law but those plans were dashed when the Dean spoke to the law students during their first week on campus, “He basically said environmental law is a really difficult law to [make a] career in; don’t waste your time.” Sam selected patent law instead, because he felt it would complement his engineering background and then he was off and running. As he worked in the world of patent law though Sam began to notice something, “There [was] some real unpredictability [in patent law] but I bet if I could see more of the information I could solve that problem.” This type of thinking quickly expanded in his mind and he settled upon the idea that not only could increased access to information benefit patent law, it could benefit every area of law that currently exists.
Initially though, family law wasn’t really on Sam’s radar. He actually used to clerk at the federal court located across the street from Miralaw’s building. He wanted to digitize court records and essentially change the way that the government conducts business. Interestingly enough, Miralaw’s mission as stated on its website is a more broadly defined variation of Sam’s original intention, “Changing the way the world manages and understands legal information.” When queried about how family law became a part of Miralaw and its quest for #AccesstoJustice (#A2J) Sam said, “It’s the sort of logical jumping off point for family law, so most people encounter the sort of access to justice gap that exists.” While other aspects of family law are perhaps more amiable or more accessible, for instance those making prenuptial agreements are less likely to have a problem accessing lawyers or possessing the finances to argue their cases, divorces are more difficult to navigate. Sam also noted that while people can find some information online regarding certain family law situations he does not believe that is the case for things like child custody, “It’s really really difficult to envision a solution where you go online and you punch in some information and out comes this magical agreement that makes you stop fighting.”
During a deeper discussion of family law, Sam spotlighted a common misconception he often hears from people who contact the company, “Many, many people contact us with some sort of story along the lines of ‘My husband or my wife says they’re going to keep everything and I’m going to get nothing and that’s just not how it works.’ The general premise is everything that’s a communal asset becomes equally divided at the end of the marriage.” It is important to note that Thistoo does not provide legal advice rather, it increases access to legal information to help people solve or, at the very least, better understand their legal problems.
Thistoo launched in February 2015 and currently has around a thousand users and fifty paid users (according to statistics quoted in December 2016). Sam calls those his greatest professional successes while also noting that his daughter, who is now around seven months old, “A personal milestone that probably dwarfs everything else I’ve done to date.”
Although Sam confessed that he now grinds his teeth at night due to the stress of being an entrepreneur his advice is to prospective entrepreneurs is simple, “[B]e ready for a lot of stress and find a way to leverage every government program that exists out there.” In terms of his thoughts on the company and its success in general Sam stated, “[F]or a long time finding good staff…and I think the way that we solved the problem instead of focusing on a core skill set we looked for individuals that we felt would be a complement to the team.” He is extremely proud of the diverse and interesting medley of people he works with every day. He also said that the team produces, “[H]ealthy conflict not unhealthy conflict,” which leads to better products and spells out a good future for the company.