The $1,500 Divorce — Great Idea or the End of Marriage?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Erin Levine’s company, Hello Divorce, is changing the legal culture and cost of splitting up.
When hate mail rolls in from attorneys, Erin Levine saves it for her “wall of shame.” They include an email from a Stanford law professor, whom she considered an ally, that accused her of providing “false hope” to her clients. That hope? To make divorce stress-free and affordable.
Levine, 40, is soft-spoken, but don’t let that fool you. She was once one of them — a divorce lawyer in California. That is until she became disillusioned and ended up launching her Hello Divorce platform. “The culture of divorce pits one spouse against each other,” Levine says. “And it’s not just about law — it’s child custody, finances and wellness, but the industry is so segmented.”
The average cost of divorce in the U.S. is $18,000. With kids, it’s $27,000. The average spend on Hello Divorce is just $1,500. The software lets you navigate your divorce either entirely on your own, or with legal help from California-based attorneys. As for the attorneys not so easily separated from their billable hours: “Bring it on,” Levine says.
The culture of divorce is always shame, as opposed to thinking: ‘I worked really hard at my marriage and this is just where I am.’
Growing up in California’s San Fernando Valley, Levine attended a Waldorf school, a German education model based on intellectual and artistic expression. Outside the classroom, she was developing her tenacity, clearly palpable today, and toughness as a competitive gymnast — she even thought about going to the Olympics. But with a dad who’s a lawyer and a mom who worked in his practice, she knew she’d eventually go into law. It was just a question of when.
Her legal career plans firmed up during a difficult time for Levine. During her years as a gymnast, she’d suffered abuse from one of her coaches. When she was 17, she decided to press criminal charges and file a civil suit against him. Even though he went to prison, the entire process was scary and disempowering. She spent a few years unsure of what she wanted to do with her life, but this experience kept pulling at her. She had to find a way to make it easier for others.
One of the biggest highlights of her time at the University of San Francisco School of Law was a class called “Sexual Identity and the Law,” where she learned about LGBTQ legal rights. Levine had worked at several nongovernmental organizations before, and the sexual identity class reignited her passion for nonprofit work. “I felt like my place was to change the system,” she says.
It was around then when she met Ashley Schuh. “Erin is kind of a quiet rebel,” says Schuh, a close friend and the supervising attorney at Levine’s law firm. “She had a pink mohawk when we met, so I was drawn to her rebellion right away.”
After becoming a certified family attorney in California, Levine opened her own practice with her dad. But she saw an opportunity in legal tech. “Lawyers are the last to adopt tech so it’s a yet-to-be disrupted field,” she says.
Living in the Bay Area, Levine noticed a demand for legal resources that didn’t exist — like a way to get divorced online and inexpensively. So she began doing market research. She interviewed people who were in the early part of a divorce and asked them what kind of tech they were comfortable with and what resources they needed. Surprisingly, she also found that 80 percent of divorces in California have at least one self-represented party, according to a report from the Judicial Council of California. She knew there was a need for something like Hello Divorce.
The site provides curated resources written by divorce industry specialists. There’s a child support calculator, resources to define legalese and flowcharts to walk you through everything. With your initial sign-up, you get 15 free minutes with a divorce expert — not a practicing lawyer but someone who is well-versed in the process. Many people choose the $99 per month “DIY Divorce” option and supplement it with a few hours of legal coaching from a divorce attorney for around $600. Another option is a five-hour legal coaching package for $1,400. There’s also an emphasis on wellness: blogs written by Levine and others talk about the importance of spending time alone, journaling or getting help from a therapist during or after a divorce.
The company has been 100 percent bootstrapped so far and it is already profitable less than two years since its founding, having helped more than 1,300 people through a decoupling. Divorce is a $50 billion industry in the U.S., which bodes well for Levine’s financial forecast. “To be a multi-million dollar company, I need less than 2 percent of the divorces in California,” she says. Eventually, Levine wants to expand beyond California, but it will take time to recruit more attorneys and legal experts, as divorce laws vary in each state.
Getting here has been a bumpy road. Hello Divorce started out as a law firm but later had to switch to a tech company. A law firm can’t accept non-lawyer investment, which would have made it challenging to raise capital in order to expand. Levine also found it difficult to promote her services because of social stigmas. “The culture of divorce is always shame, as opposed to thinking: ‘I worked really hard at my marriage and this is just where I am,’” she says.
And then there’s the legal industry pushback. Some believe Levine is violating ethics rules by offering services through Hello Divorce. “I expect I’ll eventually get reported to the state bar,” she says with a shrug. Others think her software is too narrow. “Basically, what Hello Divorce is doing is trying to offer a service to people who are already looking for a collaborative and amicable divorce,” says Gabriel Cheong, principal attorney at Infinity Law Group in Boston. “But the majority of divorces are still very contentious,” he says. “It doesn’t help the majority.”
Levine — a mother of two daughters who’s traded in gymnastics for yoga — is carrying on as she plans the next version of her DIY divorce software and the release of a new app at the end of March. And as for her own marital status? She declined to comment, leaving the question of whether she’ll put her own services to use unanswered.
And after that? Her plans include disrupting and demystifying more legal hurdles with Hello Green Card and Hello Wills and Trust.
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