Invest time figuring out what productivity tools work best for you, and don’t be afraid to use something different than your team uses. For example, I’m a really visual thinker, so I started using Notion to sort my tasks in a way I could see and really understand. Did I have to spend time researching different apps and tools? Sure, but I’ve definitely earned that back with all of the time I’ve saved by using something that “clicks” in my head.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Camila Lopez.
Originally from Cartagena, Colombia, Camila Lopez is a graduate of Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, a California licensed attorney, and a consumer advocate. She started her company, People Clerk, after seeing firsthand how inaccessible the small claims court system is. Now, Camila uses her platform to give thousands of individuals the agency they need to pursue justice and democratize the American court system.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ever since watching the Erin Brokovich movie with Julie Roberts, I knew I wanted to become a consumer protection attorney. I was just so inspired by the thought of helping the little guy win against a big corporation, I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life.
During law school my friends and family members would constantly ask me for help with their legal issues, which usually fell under “small claims,” which are typically legal claims under $10,000. They had these complex questions about the ins and outs of small claims court procedure, and the more they asked, the more I realized that it’s not as intuitive of a process to other people as it is to lawyers. But at the same time, they knew it wasn’t worth it to seek legal help, even if they hadn’t had my guidance, because their issues were too small, monetarily, to justify the cost of hiring a lawyer.
That’s what really compelled me to start People Clerk. It was insane to me that the court system that’s specifically for more pedestrian legal disputes was so complicated that it was, effectively, gatekept from the people who need it most. So, I teamed up with my co-founder, Gustavo Lozano, who comes from a background in tech and product management, and started building. The result is what we have now: a web-based platform that educates litigants and streamlines the legal process so that they can present the best versions of their case, by themselves.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
To be honest, I don’t think we could have had a more interesting start. We launched People Clerk in March of 2020, which probably tells you everything you need to know. Of course, like every business, we had no idea that the pandemic was coming, or how it would turn the world upside down. For us, COVID meant that all of the courts were shut down, which severely impacted our ability to help our clients with their cases. No one knew what was happening, even the courts themselves, so we had to stay flexible and adopt a sort of “wait and see” mentality. We couldn’t make any sort of claims or statements about what clients could expect from their lawsuit procedure, because it might’ve changed the next day. It was an exercise in how to roll with the punches, while giving people what they need as you’re able to.
On the other hand, once the courts were able to adapt to pandemic guidelines, many of them began offering virtual hearings, which had never been done before. This was a huge win for accessibility, and made getting time in front of a judge possible for many who would otherwise have no way to do so. Even now, as COVID restrictions across the country have been relaxed, those virtual options are still in place, which is a testament to the legal system’s ability to embrace new technology.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This may not be the funniest story in the world, but it’s definitely an oversight our team looks back at with a laugh. Essentially, we originally designed People Clerk to take in user information and process it into the legal forms needed to carry out their lawsuit, in the form of a printable PDF.
Our intention was to give the user a file so that the user would print at home, but we saw surprisingly low process completion rates. When we finally went in and asked our users why they weren’t completing the process, we found an answer so obvious that it was like it was hiding in plain sight. They confirmed that the process was easy to complete, but only if they had a printer. I remember how embarrassed I felt when we got that feedback, because we had completely forgotten to consider if our clients had access to that technology.
Of course, we made huge changes after that, and eliminated the need for users to print things out, but it definitely goes to show that you can never do enough user testing. Even if you think you’re close to the subject matter you’re dealing with, it’s entirely possible to miss obvious gaps.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Sure! I think the impact of our work at People Clerk is two-fold. So far, we’ve been able to directly help thousands of people as they make their way through the small claims process. The fact that these people follow through and actually get to see their day in court is incredibly rewarding, especially when most of our users have no other recourse and might have given up on their suit entirely. We give them the confidence and peace of mind they need to present their case, and that sort of development is invaluable.
The other side of our impact is the massive library of educational content that we create and host for free. As a lawyer, there are tons of rules and regulations that I’m trained to know, so I’ve begun working with my team to develop articles and blog posts that explain some of those topics in clear and concise language. I love this part of my work because it gives me an opportunity to write about topics I’m passionate about while connecting abstract legal concepts to the tangible problems that people face every day. If you’ve ever wondered how to find a trustworthy contractor, or what your rights are when your landlord keeps your security deposit, you’ll definitely benefit from checking our content out.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
It’s so hard to pare it down to just one, but a People Clerk user story that will always stick with me is actually from one of our first clients. It was from a man who was using our platform to sue his landlord for unfair security deposit retention. Landlords keep their tenants’ security deposits a lot, even when they’re not supposed to. But, in this case, because this individual didn’t get his deposit back when he moved out, he didn’t have enough money to make a deposit for his next unit. He was living paycheck to paycheck, and had a family to provide for.
It had gotten to the point where his entire family was living out of a motel, even though they had been perfect tenants at their previous residence. Because of People Clerk, he not only was able to actually sue his landlord, but he won, and got his security deposit back. In the end, it turned out that, not only was there no reason he should’ve lost his deposit, but he had actually made significant repairs to the unit before he moved out.
To me, this case is a constant reminder — no matter how many thousands of litigants we help, it’s so important to remember that to our clients, this is their “one big battle,” and they can’t afford to lose it. They also can’t afford an attorney to help them get their day in court, and that’s exactly why I set out to build this company.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Truth be told, there are a million things that can help us address the root of the problem, but I’ll limit it to three. Starting with society at large and narrowing in, we, as a country, need to center around the consumer voice; the perspective of the individual who’s buying the products and experiencing the systems at the lowest level. We can’t continue to prioritize corporations just because they have the capacity to move more money around than the little guy does.
Second, to the consumers, and sort of piggybacking off the first point, we need you to be vocal and speak to your representatives about how inaccessible the legal system is. Small claims court was built to be a tool for consumers to attain justice, and it’s not necessarily working that way. Your representatives in local government want to hear from you, but they’re not always going to be proactive about sourcing opinions. Be loud, tell them how you feel, and do it now.
Third, for those representatives and politicians, we need more legal tech sandboxes. Right now, People Clerk offers a select number of services to consumers, but that’s not because we don’t want to help in other ways, it’s because legal tech is very tightly regulated. There are a lot of really exciting sandboxes coming out of Arizona and Utah, and more programs like those could really help us test the full extent of what People Clerk’s software can do for individuals.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, leadership is a balancing act. In my career, I’ve had leaders who micromanage every decision, and leaders who are almost absent. I think both ends of the spectrum come from a lack of experience in the field. The micromanager might only know their way of doing things, so they need to see that their team members are doing things that specific way. The absentee might not feel like they have enough guidance to offer, so they stay out of it.
As the CEO of a small company, I’ve worn a lot of hats, and I’ve done a lot of the jobs that I now, thankfully, get to delegate to my team. Because of that, I feel like I know how to set realistic expectations and guide people through different processes, without either handholding or throwing them in the deep end. Do the work you’re asking others to do, and think about what you would have wanted in a leader.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
My first one is to block off and protect your time, even if it seems silly. I used to only keep meetings and important dates on my calendar, but I would frequently get sidetracked during my unscheduled time, even when I had deadlines to meet. So, I started getting really granular with my calendar, marking off 30-minute-long chunks of time for things as specific as drafting the outline for a pitch deck, or responding to investor emails. It made it so much easier for me to actually hold myself accountable without straying to whatever else happened to cross my desk.
Secondly, invest time figuring out what productivity tools work best for you, and don’t be afraid to use something different than your team uses. For example, I’m a really visual thinker, so I started using Notion to sort my tasks in a way I could see and really understand. Did I have to spend time researching different apps and tools? Sure, but I’ve definitely earned that back with all of the time I’ve saved by using something that “clicks” in my head.
Third, I would say to read as much as possible, even when it’s not directly related to your work. If it is, that’s great, but don’t be afraid to branch out to other topics. Some of your best ideas will come from something seemingly unrelated, because no one has looked at your problem through that lens before. Plus, when you give your brain time away from the task at hand, it’s still processing things in the background. Sometimes that’s what you really need to have a proper breakthrough and avoid mental exhaustion.
Fourth is that it’s okay to get used to the work you do, but you should never think of what you do as ordinary, especially if you work with people. For your clients and consumers, it’s probably their first time experiencing whatever it is you’re helping them with, and that means it’s a big deal to them. For you, it might be Tuesday, but for your clients, it could be the biggest moment of their year. It’s really important to extend empathy in that way to make sure you’re meeting people where they are.
Finally, and most importantly, I wish I had known how true the advice I got really was. People are going to give you advice throughout your entire career, and a lot of times it will seem unnecessary. Never underestimate that you will need it at some point, but it might not be as soon as you think, or in the scenario you think it might be. It’s so important to interpret the advice you get with the mindset that it’s a tool for later, not always for right now.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think that’s part of what we’re working on right now! The movement I’m hoping to inspire is one where anyone, regardless of background or the problem they’re facing, can feel confident in seeking out the justice they deserve without fear of missteps, complications, or massive financial loss. We’re surrounded by these intangible constructs that make up our legal system every day, and I want people to be comfortable navigating the ones that apply to them. That’s how we encourage people to participate in the robust system we have.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Mine is super simple, but our team says it all the time like a mantra, “Si se puede,” which is Spanish for “Yes you can.” It’s affirmative, it’s inspiring, and it’s concise — exactly what I need when I’m coming up against an obstacle or powering through something challenging. There are lots of quotes out there that speak to more heady concepts and philosophies, but all you really need to keep going is belief, and that’s what “si se puede” is, it’s self-confidence in a simple phrase. Sometimes the best things come without frills.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Absolutely Justice Sonia Sotomayor, her work has always been so inspirational to me. I read My Beloved World and was truly just blown away by the path her life has taken. Especially as a Latina in the field of law, the heights that she’s reached just really resonate with me. I’d love to have a meal with her, but I think I would be silent for most of it — I’d just want to listen to her speak and soak it all in.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find all the info you need on People Clerk at our website, PeopleClerk.com. That’s also where our blog is located. For me, you can find me on LinkedIn and Twitter to keep up with what I’m doing.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Camila Lopez of People Clerk Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.