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Automating cannabis expungements as a public service and lead generator

How this two-person firm simultaneously created a buzz to generate leads and met an underserved public need with a criminal expungement App and clever marketing.

July 28, 2020

Please introduce yourself.

I am Robert Alexander, cofounder and managing partner of Vanguard Advocates LLP. I am a criminal defense attorney and a Justice Entrepreneurs Project (JEP) alumni.

Our goal is to make this service both affordable and cost-effective. That's why we decided to build an automation.

Please explain the context behind the Vanguard420 App.

Illinois recently legalized the use of cannabis. To make policy change equitable, the State included expungement possibilities for prior cannabis convictions.

We want to help people take advantage of this policy change and expunge their records of cannabis convictions. Our goal is to make this service both affordable and cost-effective. That's why we decided to build an automation.

Putting aside the Vanguard420 App for a moment, what is the process like for expunging a cannabis conviction in Illinois?

You need to read the statute, make sure your conviction falls within the bounds of the statute, then file a motion. In theory, you could do this on your own, but even attorneys have trouble parsing the statute.

My recommendation to lawyers interested in building automations is to start by writing out exactly what your current process entails.

What part of this process does the Vanguard420 App automate?

The client interview. The App asks a series of questions to determine whether you're eligible for cannabis expungement relief or other types of criminal records relief. If you're not eligible, the App tells you why not and asks if you're interested in other types of relief. If you're eligible, and you choose to hire our firm, the App collects even more information, drafts an engagement letter, collects a deposit, and emails us the engagement letter plus an outline of their petition. We then review the petition outline to make sure it's correct.

Very cool. You've built an impressive App. We've found that building an App is only part of the challenge of creating a successful automation; the other part of the challenge is marketing it. How do you think about getting people to discover Vanguard420?

This has been a huge challenge, but thankfully my law partner has an extensive background in sales. We knew going into this that we would have to get out there and find the market for this service. We knew this market existed, that there was a need for affordable cannabis expungements, but the market didn't know that we existed and that we had a product for them.

We bought our URL, vanguard420.com, then made business cards to advertise this website.

On the front, the card includes our standard law firm information. On the back, it says "do you have a cannabis conviction? Visit vanguard420.com to let us help you clear that record. It's only $420 plus court fees." We've given out about 500 of these cards. Lawyers like them, lyft drivers like them — we pass them out to everybody we meet.

How does Vanguard420 fit into the broader spectrum of services of Vanguard Advocates?

Vanguard420 is meant to be the first of many self-help, or quasi self-help, services we offer. This is an experiment to discover whether these kinds of services are viable.

I also wanted this App to help us internally. If someone calls our firm looking for this service, our staff uses the App to quickly make an assessment and collect the information we need.

What's great is that people who find our Vanguard420 business card sometimes end up calling us to inquire about other services.

What's coming up next for Vanguard Advocates?

I'm working on a couple new Apps to help my staff handle those callers that ask for services we don't provide. People call us all the time for things we don't do, and I love that, I love that we're someone's first call for help no matter what the issue is. This new App will allow my staff to conduct an intake for these callers and then match with an attorney from our network who provides the relevant services.

We're looking at everything we do to find opportunities for technology to make things more efficient. I've made a flow chart of our operations for specific matters and this has been a huge help in finding efficiency bottlenecks.

What advice would you give to attorneys who are just starting to explore automation?

This is something that the JEP beat into us: map out your process. Write out, step-by-step, what your process entails. The trick is to write this as if you're explaining it to a child. With that, you can get a bird's eye view of your practice and easily spot opportunities for improvements.

How do you want to get started?

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