We have all these amazing rights on paper that are supposed to protect people. But when people try to access these rights, they often can’t because they can’t afford lawyers and the forms are too hard to understand. I had no idea that if you’re evicted from your home, trapped in an abusive relationship, or suffering from debt and in need of bankruptcy, you have no right to a free lawyer in the civil legal system, no matter how little money you make. It made me very angry. And that's why I started Upsolve.
- Rohan Pavuluri, Upsolve CEO and Co-founder
Written by Upsolve Team.
Updated February 18, 2020
Every Tuesday evening, I call eight Upsolve users to see how they’re doing and personally get feedback on how we can improve our app. During these calls, the most common question that I get is: “Why did you start Upsolve?” I thought I’d take a moment to share how we started and why I've continue to lead this work since 2016.
When I first started college at Harvard, I thought that the only way to make a big change in the world was through public policy. Pass a law, my thinking went, and suddenly you could have a big impact on a large number of people. Soon, I learned from my classmates during my freshman year that technology shared a similar quality with public policy. If you build a technology product and put it out there, you can very quickly help a large number of people.
Unfortunately, I learned that most people were building technology to make rich people richer and rich companies richer. Not that many people were working on technology to help low-income families and marginalized communities. If I could find the right problem to work on, I thought I could use technology to make a big difference.
Around the same time, I started to work as a research assistant at a Harvard Law School research lab that was testing out whether people could solve their own legal problems using paper packets to guide them. I thought these paper packets were amazing and that maybe technology could increase their reach.
Through my work at the lab, I learned about the Access to Justice Crisis in America. Over 4 in 5 low-income families can’t access the basic civil legal rights they’re owed because then can’t get the legal help they need. I thought it was crazy that something like that was happening in America. And it wasn't even a part of our national dialogue.
We have all these amazing rights on paper that are supposed to protect people. But when people try to access these rights, they often can’t because they can’t afford lawyers and the forms are too hard to understand. I had no idea that if you’re evicted from your home, trapped in an abusive relationship, or suffering from debt and in need of bankruptcy, you have no right to a free lawyer, no matter how much money you made. It made me very angry.
That anger with the status quo led me to start looking for a way to use technology to help people solve their own legal problems. I realized that the challenge of equal protection under the law was too big for lawyers alone to achieve in their traditional one-to-one model. After spending a few months talking to lawyers, judges, and people in need of legal assistance, I started to discover the huge opportunity to help people file for bankruptcy.
I learned that millions of people in America every year suffer from medical bills, layoffs, and predatory loans, and that bankruptcy could be an amazing tool for them to relieve their debt. I also learned that bankruptcy could help people stop wage garnishment, improve their credit, and increase their chances of getting a job. Bankruptcy can transform someone’s life, and I realized that building a product to help people achieve that transformation at scale would be the best use of my time.
I'm confident that Upsolve will be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I'm lucky to have an amazing team of engineers and lawyers to move our mission forward. I'm lucky to have amazing advisors, who include former judges that believe in the need for our work. And I'm lucky to have the best funders in the United States from the technology industry (the same people who wrote the early checks for Instagram, Uber, Facebook, and Twitter), traditional philanthropy (the Robin Hood Foundation is famous for the most rigorous evaluation processes in the nonprofit sector), and the U.S. government (the Legal Services Corporation receives $400 million+ every year from Congress).
Within four short years, Upsolve has become the largest nonprofit for bankruptcy in America and a leader in our field of using technology to help low-income families solve their own legal problems.
I believe there will always be an important role for lawyers in America. At Upsolve, we understand the limitations of our app, as we’re only able to serve people with simple cases. We believe that if you can afford a lawyer, you should hire one. I also believe that our website should not have to exist. It should be the job of the courts to provide forms that people can actually understand and websites that people can actually use. The system doesn’t need to be as complicated as it is today.
Moving forward, we have two main goals: (1) to help as many people as possible with our app, and to (2) advocate for a more accessible, just legal system where people can solve their own legal problems when they can’t afford help. We'll never have enough free lawyers to meet the demand from low-income families who need help. So, we need to think creatively about how to address this need. I'm hopeful that Upsolve will play a central part in that work.
- Rohan Pavuluri, CEO and Co-Founder