Current Projects Work Product Tool

ZoningCheck: Easing the zoning clearance process

ZoningCheck is a legal web app to help business owners navigate zoning regulations.  It’s a winner of one of the grants from the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge from last year.

It’s an Open Government app, that processes local city codes into searchable, navigable experiences online. Rather than going in person to a government center, a business owner can search for their city’s code, find the rules that apply to their (prospective) business and property plans, and find what regulations & process will apply to them.

It’s in Beta for a limited number of cities, only in California.  The design is ultra-simple & clean.  It has four clearly demarcated steps: choose your city, your business type, your prospective location & then see if your business type would be permitted in that location or not.

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Here’s a write-up from ZoningCheck’s team about their ideas & development.

ZoningCheck helps entrepreneurs find a home for their next business – Knight Foundation.

July 23, 2014, 8 a.m., Posted by Peter Koht and Joel Mahoney

Peter Koht and Joel Mahoney are co-founders of OpenCounter, a winner of the 2013 Knight News Challenge: Open Gov. Below, they write about their work and the launch of their latest project, ZoningCheck.

To most citizens, zoning is invisible: We’re aware of it in the abstract, but it doesn’t seem to affect our daily lives. But if you’re an entrepreneur trying to open a business, zoning has a direct and immediate impact on your plans and your pocketbook.

Thanks to the support of Knight Foundation, we’re announcing a new product that will help entrepreneurs navigate the zoning clearance process. We call it ZoningCheck.

Here’s where it will help: Like the computer code that powers our laptops and mobile phones, the legal code that runs a city is dense and difficult to understand. There’s a lot of jargon, references to other documents, and all the narrative tension of a phone book.

Large corporations navigate this complexity by hiring site selection experts and attorneys to read the legal code for them. Small business owners, on the other hand, are often left to their own devices.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to open a bakery in an up-and-coming neighborhood. First you would need to get a copy of the city’s zoning map, and find out how your location—if you even have one picked out—is zoned. Then you would need to dive deep into the code to look for a list of approved land uses for that location. This list of uses can include quite a few arcane business types (“wool pulling and scouring” is one of our favorites in San Francisco) while being noticeably silent on more modern operations, like co-working spaces or food trucks—let alone a maker space.

In addition to picking the right use, our baker will have to learn about issues such as zoning “overlays” and special districts, and “conditional” rules. A bakery isn’t just a bakery if it includes a retail component, and it might not be permitted in a downtown area if it operates a wood-fired oven.

Confronting this level of ambiguity, entrepreneurs often will resort to a trip to city hall to talk to a planner, which can be an enlightening conversation, but usually involves a fee and a five- to 10-day turnaround for a formal response.

Enter ZoningCheck. This tool asks a few simple questions, such as “what type of business are you planning to open?” and “do you have a location picked out.” It also  displays an interactive map of how the municipal code would process this hypothetical application. ZoningCheck turns a five- to 10-day process into a five- to 10-second process.

At OpenCounter, we believe that small businesses play a critical role in building strong local economies, and that governments can do more to help entrepreneurs get started. Our main product — — does this by guiding applicants through the business permitting forms, and calculating the costs and processing time to register the company. By moving the process online, we make an important city service available 24/7, and give municipalities a new level of insight into economic trends in their communities.

ZoningCheck expands this experience. It is built on open data and existing regulations. As part of our product launch, we’re offering to configure and host ZoningCheck for free for one year for qualified cities. If you work for a town or city and are interested in joining our public beta, please email us at

Current Projects Procedural Guide

Citizenship Apps

Open Law Lab - Citizenship Apps
Citizenshipworks is building online and mobile apps aimed at non-citizens in the US — trying to give them resources and tutorials to navigate their way through citizenship.
They have checklists, expert system interviews, and tutorials to help the users along.
Damian Thompson of the Knight Foundation, writes of the new app.

I’m also proud to report on last week’s launch of the CitizenshipWorks mobile app for iOS and Android. Knight Foundation is the chief funder. Tony Lu, one of the app’s developers, says its combination of features is unique, integrating citizenship eligibility tools, such as a “trips calculator” and a document checklist; a legal directory; and study aids.

Those resources are immensely helpful for people navigating the path to citizenship. For example, green card holders who want to become citizens have to list every trip they’ve taken abroad on their applications. Imagine if you had to list every trip you’ve taken over the past five years. It would be a nightmare, especially if you didn’t keep systematic records. This is where the trips calculator can help.

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Advocates Current Projects

Apps to Manage Lawyers

Open Law Lab - viewabill - app to manage lawyer

Here’s an article by Jennifer Smith in the Wall Street Journal on new crops of apps that help clients find and monitor lawyers.  It mentions Viewabill (tracking how much their lawyers are charging them, in real-time); Rocket Lawyer’s mobile app (create basic legal documents and buy plans for low-cost access to advice); Attorney Proz (lists area lawyers, who have paid to be listed); Ask a Lawyer (ask lawyers in Kalamzoo about basic legal questions and get free answers to your e-mail); and soon to be a LegalZoom app.

Now that people use apps to bank, order food and even monitor eBay auction bids, it was only a matter of time before they called in the lawyers.

Appearing in app stores are programs to help people keep track of their attorneys’ bills, draft legal documents and locate nearby lawyers.

Attorneys are doing more work on smartphones and tablets, and they have a whole host of apps at their disposal to help look up case law, track client calls and even assist with depositions and jury selection.

But until recently, few options existed for clients who wished to track cases or seek advice using mobile devices. This new crop of apps aims to add transparency, and a measure of convenience, to the process.

One new app, Viewabill, lets people track how much their lawyers are charging them in real-time. The idea is to head off sticker shock when business owners and company lawyers open up their monthly bills.

The app acts as kind of a client nanny-cam. It captures information as law firms enter it into their billing systems and transmits it to clients’ mobiles and desktops. Users select how often they want to get updates, set alerts pegged to certain dollar thresholds and can mark questionable items. The app can also be used to track hours logged by accountants and other professional service providers.

The app is now being used by a handful of companies and law firms on a beta basis, with a wider launch planned this month, said Florida-based entrepreneur David Schottenstein, who co-founded the enterprise with an attorney friend, Robbie Friedman. Firms would pay an annual cost of $25 to $40 per matter, depending on volume, or $25,000 for unlimited use, said Mr. Schottenstein.

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“It helps them to understand what we do,” said Brian Baker, a bankruptcy lawyer at Ravin Greenberg LLC in New Jersey, which has been testing the app.

Errol Feldman, general counsel for JPay Inc., a Florida company that provides payment transfers and other services to inmates at corrections facilities, has been using Viewabill to make sure firms working to resolve contract disputes do so in a timely fashion.

Legal consultant Susan Hackett said the app was the latest example of a push for greater communication between lawyers and clients, who increasingly want more involvement in the work they assign to outside law firms.

Some companies with big in-house legal departments have already invested in software programs that let clients track the progress of legal matters or monitor law firm bills from their desktop computers. Such systems don’t come cheap, and not many clients use them yet—fewer than 20% of general counsel, according to a 2011 poll by the Association of Corporate Counsel.

Not all law firms may welcome the additional element of client control on the legal side of things. For Viewabill to work, for instance, lawyers have to enter their hours in a timely fashion.

“These technologies may scare people,” Ms. Hackett said. “But they are all productive parts of the march towards clients and lawyers having conversations in real time.”

This month online legal services company Rocket Lawyer Inc. is debuting a mobile app tailored to its customer base: consumers and small business owners who log on to the site to create basic legal documents or buy plans that provide low-cost access to legal advice.

Charley Moore, Rocket Lawyer’s founder and executive chairman, said more site traffic is coming from tablets and smartphones these days, reflecting his customers’ increasingly mobile bent. Many are small business owners who spend much of their time on the road, he said.

“Their office is their dashboard, so we have to deliver the tools,” Mr. Moore said.

Customers can use the app to create a non-disclosure agreement (more forms will soon be available) or modify existing documents they have already created. The app itself is free, and users can access some functions gratis.

Users can also locate nearby attorneys from Rocket Lawyer’s network—the app is integrated with Google GOOG +0.53% Maps—and punch in basic legal questions, although the reply, which is supposed to arrive within one business day, may not be swift as some might hope.

A handful of other apps offer similar services. Attorney Proz also lists area lawyers, who pay to be included. Ask a Lawyer, an app linked to Kalamazoo, Mich., law firm Willis Law, also offers free answers to basic legal questions, with replies sent to users’ email addresses.

Not to be outdone, online legal services company Inc., a Rocket Lawyer competitor, also has an app in the works, a company spokeswoman said.

A version of this article appeared March 11, 2013, on page B5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Apps Help Find Lawyers, And Keep an Eye on Them.