Gourmet ice cream sandwiches, organic low-sugar energy bars, and award-winning pilsners are not your typical post-law school endeavors. But for a group of Northwestern Law alumni, taking equal ...
After working at both a BigLaw firm and a clean technology startup, Wilson Tsu (JD-MBA ’08) knew he wanted to start his own company in the education sphere.
Some advice from former classmate Joe Dwyer (JD-MBA ’08) sparked his thinking.
“Joe and I were talking about how ideas come about. He said it’s an accumulation of two things: what you love and what you know. If those intersect, that’s probably the best place to start,” said Tsu.
Tsu, who worked as an engineer with IBM for seven years before pursuing his JD-MBA, thought about his own experiences.
“I thought about the things that I did during business school and law school that I liked and especially what I didn’t like. I graduated undergrad in 1997. Back then no one had laptops—if you had a computer it was a clunky desktop, with a dial up modem. So, when I started law school in 2005, I thought, ‘Wow, this will be very different,’ and it wasn’t. Instead of writing notes on notebooks, we had laptops to take notes on, and that was it. I still had to buy these huge six-pound books that cost $250 and lug them around. And the process of extracting the contents from those books and consuming them was the same as it was back then,” he said.
“For me as an engineer, transitioning to the rigors and the needs of law school—especially with the amount of reading you had to do, and the type of reading—was a huge learning curve for me. And I struggled my first year because I had a hard time just getting through the material. I thought that that process could have been a lot easier if you used a little bit of technology, and I knew what was out there from a technology standpoint so I started thinking, ‘Okay, how can I apply technology to this process?’”
LearnLeo, the online platform Tsu and his colleagues developed to change the way students and educators consume and deliver information, is the answer to that question.
Time-Saving Academic Tools
“LearnLeo is a suite of tools law students can use to make their processes more efficient,” Tsu, the founder and CEO of the company, said.
LearnLeo’s first product, its academic tool, put cases from textbooks online with a proprietary patent-pending markup tool that makes case-reading and brief-writing more efficient.
“You’re creating this brief from the material for every single case and you’re always looking for the same things—fact, procedure, issue. You see students running around with different colored highlighters; it just takes forever to do the same thing,” Tsu said.
LearnLeo brought the academic tool—which is available to students for free—to Northwestern Law first in 2012. They went through a fundraising round in 2013 and went from one, to thirteen, to twenty, to dozens of law schools.
Tsu and his colleagues saw how well-received the academic tool was, and saw an opportunity to grow their business, which included bringing on fellow Northwestern Law alumni.
Dan Hodgman (JD ’07), a classmate and former coworker of Tsu’s at Kirkland & Ellis, was one of the first investors in LearnLeo and would meet with Tsu regularly to check in.
“I remember testing the first prototype of the academic product while sitting in my office at Kirkland. I remained at Kirkland for two or three years after LearnLeo was operating, but Wilson and I met every month or two and those meetings started to become more and more substantive,” Hodgman said.
“When we got the first investment round in the fall of 2013, there was some growth opportunity and Wilson wanted someone who was more senior to come in and help to build out some of the company’s capacity. My wife told me, when I was thinking about multiple opportunities, she said ‘You know what? The only thing you get excited about when you talk about it is going to work at LearnLeo.’”
As LearnLeo expanded its team and its reach, it also launched a second product, a pre-law tutorial designed for prospective students.
“How many kids have read a case before they start law school? Probably not a lot. Or they haven’t done it enough to be any good at it,” Hodgman said.
The law school prep product introduces students to the methods for reading cases and identifying pertinent information. It also serves as a marketing tool, getting students familiar with the platform before they even start law school. The LearnLeo team credits it with helping expand their reach, bringing their main academic product to more law schools.
“Schools know they have a gap there, in getting students ready for law school, so we created a pre-law product to meet that need and we actually just try to get the schools to market for us,” Tsu said.
“We’re providing a real value because we’re preparing their students but the pre-law product also indoctrinates the students with how our system works across our products,” Hodgman said.
“That’s so key because so much in law school is just figuring out something that works and sticking with it,” said Nisreen Hasib (JD ’14), who joined LearnLeo after graduating from Northwestern Law and who used the product herself as a student.
“We don’t shove all this information down your throat. We give it to you in approachable, bite-sized chunks in a really clean, easy-to-use format. And it’s almost like magic; you’re learning these things without too much effort. And because of the way law school operates now—it’s so much effort, so much stress; it feels so heavy. We wanted to take all that away and make it a lot easier.”
Users report that they actually enjoy doing the work using the products, and most importantly to the LearnLeo team, they’re not simply saving time—though they can save hours per week—they’re getting better outcomes.
“We do a lot of research and get feedback from a lot of our users, and we’ve found even if students are fast, they get faster and they use that saved time to do things that we think improve outcomes even more. They work on their outline earlier in the year; they do things that really help people get good grades,” Tsu said.
“We want to improve educational outcomes, that’s why we do this. The most satisfying part of our job is when we talk to users and they come up and say ‘Hey, I got an A in the class because of LearnLeo.’ You think about it, that tool they used to get an A was just in your head at some point; it didn’t exist. You had to create it, put it out there, and get people to use it.”
Beyond Case Studies
In addition to the academic and law school prep products, LearnLeo has a career research tool for soon-to-be-lawyers.
“We have profiles for all the big law firms on our site and we let students more easily search and compare, so that they make the decision of where to work when they graduate with more information,” Tsu said.
“We see a lot of students not know what they were getting into and pick the wrong firm, and they leave within one or two years. That happens a lot in big law. We thought that it would be better if students had easy access to more information, and could actually even meet attorneys before they made decisions. So our site facilitates that. We provide the research so that students can find out more online information about firms and they can also reach out through us to firms to try to meet someone there.”
LearnLeo’s first three products help prospective, current, and near-graduating law students; the fourth, PowerNotes, is designed to help law students conduct legal research, but Tsu, Hodgman, and Hasib believe it can eventually be used by any student conducting research, or anyone looking to better organize their navigation of digital information.
PowerNotes, the first product LearnLeo is charging for, is already being used by a handful of law schools, with the potential to grow quickly. Instead of focusing on a single case, the research tool allows users to navigate multiple online sources, identify pertinent information using methods similar to the other products, and then generate an outline automatically.
“We’ve been testing it with undergrads and what we know, from our own experiences and talking to students, is that they’re still doing a lot of research papers and their research process isn’t that different from law students,” Tsu said.
“Joe [Dwyer, Tsu’s classmate who now runs the Founder Equity firm which finances LearnLeo] has kids in high school and they’ve used it for their high school research papers and they love it. So, that’s another opportunity.”
“I would say we’re in a transition period from focusing almost exclusively on law school students, to undergrads, to the general population,” Hodgman said.
“Anyone that has researched how to plan a trip or to write a blog post, or you’ve just been searching for a recipe, the history of where you’ve been is hard to keep track of. It turns into useless browsing. Our tool provides a super seamless way to save all that that’s much easier than the other things out there, so I think we’re at an inflection point where the market that we can address is growing from 40,000 people per year to…”
“Millions,” Hasib interjected. “If Google’s role is to bring you the entire internet, we want to help you organize it so that it’s useful. And I really think that’s something that we have the power to do.”
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