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Of legal history and big bucks

Paran Balakrishnan | March 06, 2004

It was a Herculean task that defeated many other ambitious new players. Four years ago when the dot-com boom was heading to a spectacular bust, executive Deepak Kapoor teamed up with businessman Sanjeev Saraf to start on a colossal project.

Their goal: to build a legal website with all the judgements of the Supreme Court and the 23 high courts since 1950.

As dot-com projects go, it wasn't a terribly original idea. Others had figured that the legal community was rich and prosperous and always needed legal reference material.

The only difficulty was the gigantic task itself: it was a bit like condensing all the wisdom of the Orient onto the head of a pin. Says Kapoor: "If we had known how tough it was, we probably wouldn't even have attempted it."

Four years later, the task is close to being accomplished. Manupatra has 200 people working at its headquarters in Noida on the outskirts of Delhi and it's growing at high speed.

A core team of 15 lawyers and company secretaries ensures that the legal nitty-gritty isn't off the mark. Now, it's in the process of setting up marketing offices around the country.

How big was the task that Manupatra took on? Since 1950 the 23 high courts around the country have handed down 220,000 recorded judgements which are, on average, anywhere between five and 10 pages long (that could be almost 2.2 million pages).

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has come up with 35,000 judgements since 1950 and is churning more out every day. If that isn't enough, throw in the judgements of 14 administrative tribunals, all the acts issued by the Government since 1950 and even government regulations and notifications.

What's more, the courts never stop churning out judgements. The Delhi High Court, for instance, turns out around 1,200 judgements annually and the other courts are equally prolific. Keeping pace is a bit like walking on a treadmill.

The result is that Manupatra is a 17GB website and it turns out more than 2MB of material every day. For Internet novices, that's the equivalent of two paperback novels daily.

Putting it all together started back in August 2000 and within one year the company had 10 years of cases on its site from five key high courts. With that it was able to attract around 50 customers by November 2001.

Unlike many other dot-com ventures, Manupatra figured early that it wasn't enough to get eyeballs. More important was ensuring that customers were ready to pay for its services.

That has also moved along at a steady pace in the last three years. To maximise revenues the company offers multiple combinations so that lawyers and companies can choose what they want to subscribe to and for how long.

The result is that today Manupatra has a growing clientele that includes blue chip corporates, top law firms and even 10 law schools scattered around the country.

Also, it's available in the judge's libraries at several high courts. Even the man in the street can access the site at special kiosks that have been set up at some high courts. One sign that Manupatra has arrived in the legal world is that judges accept Manupatra citations.

In the process the website appears to have stormed ahead of its rivals. At the peak of the dot-com boom a number of websites started out with a similar idea of becoming the scribes of the legal world. Most ran out of cash along the way. However, there are a number of specialised Web sites like Taxonline that deal with subjects like income tax.

Back in 2000, Manupatra started with around Rs 5 crore (Rs 50 million) in the kitty. Now that it's earnings have stabilised, it's starting marketing offices around the country.

These marketing offices will sell CDs in smaller towns and cities where the Internet still hasn't reached. Customers will be able to buy legal combinations that suit their needs.

A lawyer in Madhya Pradesh, for instance, will be able to buy the judgements of the state high court and the Supreme Court on CD (for around Rs 5,000).

The company is moving into CDs because Internet penetration in this country is still extremely low. Kapoor reckons that the offices will earn their keep if they can sell five CDs a month.

Also, customers will be ready to switch to the Net when it becomes available in the smaller towns. In the first year it hopes to sell around 1,000 CDs. Says Kapoor: "We are seeding the market. It will then be a painless migration."

Now that it's revenues are coming in steadily, Manupatra is also looking at improving its services in other ways. It has just started a giant project to put 'headnotes' at the top of each case.

These 'headnotes' explain the key points at issue in each case. This is a pretty big task and will cost around Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million). The work will be outsourced to lawyers.

If all goes well, there are other plans on the anvil. Manupatra is even looking at starting a print newsletter that will be circulated free to the legal community. If that proves successful the company might even start a legal magazine.

If you compare Manupatra with its foreign counterparts, it does, of course, have a long way to go. Companies like Aspin Publishing and Westlaw have become giants abroad with thousands on their rolls.

Manupatra has already struck a deal with Westlaw and is marketing its products in India. Westlaw gets a lot of its BPO work done in the Philippines.

What will happen next? The legal world and the judiciary is slowly going online but they aren't rushing into it.

Manupatra now receives judgements online from the Supreme Court around 48 hours after they have been delivered. By contrast, Kerala still sends its judgements on paper.

Most lawyers offices are still lined with legal volumes from top to bottom. In a few years, perhaps the thousands of volumes will be replaced by a sleek PC which will spit out case references at the click of a mouse.

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