What do you get when you cross an entrepreneur, a law office, and a bookstore? This

By Richard Nieva , written on February 7, 2013

From The News Desk

So you’ve got yourself  a successful Internet legal service. The business is profitable and you’ve got lawyers all across the globe. What’s next? Build a bookstore obviously. Today LegalForce opened up a three-level retail store in Palo Alto that sells books, holds classes, and connects customers with attorneys for legal advice.

Mountain View-based LegalForce, formerly Trademarkia, is a web service that lets users register trademarks online, to the tune of between 50 and 100 a day, says Raj Abhyanker, the company’s cofounder and chief executive. The business is two-pronged, and is actually made up of two separate entities: The first is a traditional law practice, which Abhyanker heads. The other is a what he calls a “law automation software tech company” – and is the reason he can raise funding and hire coders and designers, things that a law-practicing entity are not allowed to do in California.

The business is doing about $15 million in revenue annually with government fees, says Abhyanker. It is privately funded, though the company has repeatedly turned down VC money, he says, partly because of the chip on Abhyanker’s shoulder from not being able to scare up capital after the company launched at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2009.

And the next stage of evolution is books, apparently. While so many retailers are struggling, and bookstores are folding left and right, it’s odd that an already successful company would storm into the brick and mortar business, pumping about $2 million into setting it up. The team also paid to restore the building itself, which is about 85-years-old and sits prominently on University Avenue.

The new retail business, called BookFlip, is part law office, part bookstore, part lounge, part classroom, part rec center, part ice rink and part tanning salon. Okay, maybe not the last two. But it is a law consultancy center, plus everything else you’d never think to put into the same sentence, let alone same building.

The idea is to build a community of people who will engage in legal advice in a new way, he says. The bookstore sells law and general titles, and sells tablets as well. Visitors can read books or take a class. Example courses: Pinterest for seniors, Starting Your Business on Esty, and How to File a Patent. Some are sponsored by companies, and some are paid classes. And when you’re ready to buy a book, you are rung up by a law “concierge,” as Abhyanker calls them, aka ambitious youngsters with designs on law school. The company populates the bookshelves by working with Ingram Content Group, a distributor that many of the major book chains use.

This is all a lure to get visitors into the area of the store where lawyers work on call, waiting for walk-ins and charging $45 per 15 minutes. “The vast amount of people who come in aren’t looking for legal advice,” says Abhyanker. “But we build a relationship with them. And we’re here when they need us.”

It’s hard to tell if the move is stupid or brilliant. Probably a little bit of both. Maybe Abhyanker a masochist. He is willingly, enthusiastically even, taking on every problem brick and mortar retailers face, from showrooming to price undercutting. Then there’s the overhead and all the headaches that come with managing an inventory. To oversee that stuff, the company hired a manager with years of experience running a bookstore. It’s a risky experiment, but, of course, not every mom and pop has a multi-million dollar law service to serve as an emergency nest egg.

The store could do what Abhyanker intended -- cultivate an organic community -- but it could also be a leech on the company’s funds. He hopes to expand by taking over struggling bookstores and rebranding them as BookFlips. But while progressive Silicon Valley might be willing to give it a shot, who knows if it will play in Peoria? Abhyhanker says the legal focus can shift based on the demographics of the neighborhood. For example, a store in an area full of immigrants can center more on immigration law, he says.

But what gives a lawyer/entrepreneur the nerve to think he knows the first thing about running a bookstore? Abhyanker actually grew up in retail. In 1980, his father opened up the first Apple store in his home state of Arizona. By the mid-90s, it was the fifth largest Apple dealer in the United States. But things took a turn when Apple started doing its own retail stores and his father went bankrupt. Abhyanker says watching his father make the wrong legal and financial decisions for the company drove him to study law.

So it’s perhaps fitting where his own retail store stands today – across the street from the Apple store.