ONE MORNING IN JUNE OF 2013, lawyers Mark Morris and Lena Koke did something a slew of other professionals — doctors, pharmacists and dentists — had done years ago. They set up shop in a Walmart. “It doesn’t really take a brilliant mind to realize that lawyers are the only professional business not here,” says Morris, standing just inside the retail giant’s Eglinton and Warden Avenue location, as a six-foot-high display of bread teeters a few steps to his right. For any business, he notes, operating inside of Walmart has an obvious appeal: foot traffic. Each month, more than 400,000 people visit the location in Scarborough, where Morris and Koke launched the third branch of their firm, Axess Law.
Six months after that first morning, the entrepreneurs opened a second location in Markham. Since then, they’ve opened another six branches at Walmarts across the GTA, where they dole out wills for $99, notarize documents for $25 and execute residential real estate purchases for $1,300 — well below the average prices elsewhere in the market. In that same period, their staff has ballooned to eight lawyers and 21 other professionals, including paralegals and articling students. Within a few years, the ambitious duo hopes to be in Walmarts across the country.
Koke credits Axess Law’s rapid growth to its knack for catering to the typical Walmart customer. “Life is busy. They’ve got a kid crying in the stroller, they’re pushing a cart full of food, they’re overworked and they don’t have enough holidays.” At Walmart, “they can do their taxes, get their hair done, pick up a pair of glasses, book a holiday, pay for their groceries, put their kid back into the minivan and go home.” It just made sense to add “hire a lawyer” to that list.
Koke and Morris wanted to practise law in the same way that Walmart sells socks and T-shirts. In other words, faster and cheaper. They wanted to offer simple wills, for instance, at $99 each — undercutting their competitors, who charge an average of $375. And they had to write them fast. “We both knew how to write a will,” Morris recalls. “But we needed to write 100 wills in 100 hours.”
To make that happen, Morris and Koke did two things. First, with the help of a software designer, they developed a computer program that guides lawyers through the will-writing process, prompting every question they need to ask each client, including specific follow-ups. Second, they decided to refer complex will requests to other firms — for instance, if a client’s mental health is in question, or if a client has extensive assets.
By tightly regulating the kinds of wills they will take on, Koke and Morris have earned the tentative support of other estate lawyers. Indeed, to write anything but the most rudimentary will in an hour is a near impossible task, says Edward Olkovich, a certified specialist in estate law who charges $750 for a will. People often show up at his office and make ludicrous requests. “It can take an hour just to explain the law.”
But, in cases where people don’t need substantial advice, a $99 will from Axess Law is “the perfect solution,” says Suzana Popovic-Montag, an estate litigator at Hull & Hull LLP. “A lawyer-signed will is better than no will. Let’s face it.” Olkovich agrees: “If [Axess Law] gives someone peace of mind when they get on an airplane because they’ve got a $99 will, that’s a good thing.”
MORRIS AND KOKE MET 10 YEARS AGO sitting around a campfire in Muskoka. They had just started the MBA program at the University of Toronto, and travelled north for orientation. Koke was pursuing a joint JD-MBA. Morris had a law degree from McGill University and returned to school after serving as a policy advisor to then-Attorney General of Ontario, David Young, and working in private practice. The pair remained friends after graduating.
The original plan for Axess Law, however, didn’t take off until 2009. At the time, Koke worked in real estate. She came up with the idea to open a law firm at Walmart and took it to Morris. By 2011 they were fully committed to the project.
After two years of part-time planning, they launched the first location of Axess Law. Then, the real work began. “Lena and I worked seven days a week for 18 hours a day,” recalls Morris, now 39. “I never thought that I would work as hard as I did when I was in politics. I literally slept in my office there. I vowed I would never have to do that again. But I did.” Morris had two young kids at home, now ages two and five, and he admits his wife “has had to make sacrifices in order for this business to succeed. There’s no doubt.” By now, Koke and Morris have achieved some stability. And so the founders have scaled back their hours.
To continue expanding, Axess Law has to do what any business has to do: attract more customers. But, for the co-founders, the task doesn’t sound so daunting.
“There’s a lot of room for people to do what we’re doing,” says Koke, now 35. As far as she can tell, Axess Law is targeting a demographic that no one in the legal world has tapped: people who can’t afford a will at the going market rate. “They have picked a very good niche,” says Popovic-Montag, lauding Axess Law for targeting the huge swathe of the population — 56 percent of Canadians and 63 percent of Torontonians — that doesn’t have a signed will.
To Morris and Koke, providing legal advice to those Canadians is not just good for busi- ness: it’s good for the public. “Our name isn’t a mistake,” says Morris. “We are playing on the word ‘access.’” In the next decade, he expects other law firms will find ways to make lawyers more affordable. “I think to some degree there is a shame running through our profession. We all intuitively know that something is not working.”
Year of call: 2005
Favourite legal character: Matlock. We share a great love of street food
If I weren’t a lawyer I’d be: A Canadian version of Anthony Bourdain (with a significantly less sophisticated palate)
Most treasured possession: My passport and the time to use it
Greatest extravagance: Lazy Sunday afternoons. Rare, but wonderful
Year of call: 2002
Pet peeve: People who use the word “YOLO” in daily conversation
Favourite legal character: I know I am dating myself, but Lionel Hutz from The Simpsons
If I weren’t a lawyer I’d be: An on-site quality inspector for a Caribbean vacation company
Most treasured possession: I still have my ColecoVision from the ’80s. Still the best video game machine ever made
Greatest extravagance: Having a minute to actually play the ColecoVision
This story is from our Spring 2015 issue.
Photography by Thomas Dagg