As an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, Camila Lopez often watched the 2000 film Erin Brockovich, which is based on the true story of a feisty law clerk taking on Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in a contaminated drinking water case.
With dreams of being a high-stakes plaintiffs lawyer, Lopez worked as a law clerk with a product liability firm. But by her third year at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, she realized very few people get to try big-ticket cases, and even fewer have the financial resources to put them on.
“I was disillusioned with what my career would look like,” says Lopez, who noticed many people’s legal needs were not met—either because they could not afford representation or because attorneys weren’t interested in their cases.
Meanwhile, family members kept asking for help with matters such as getting apartment security deposits returned and dealing with consumer contracts. So she decided to pursue a career in what could be seen as small-ticket cases filed in California small claims courts. In March 2020, she and her husband, a computer engineer and former project manager for Walmart, launched People Clerk, which uses software to generate lawsuits based on a series of questions.
“When you’re an engineer, you’re always looking for ways to automate and scale things. What technology does is it democratizes information,” says Gustavo Lozano, Lopez’s husband and People Clerk’s chief technical officer.
California prohibits attorneys from making court appearances for small claims court clients, but parties can hire a lawyer to write complaints. For individuals, the value of claim can’t exceed $10,000, and for businesses, the limit is $5,000.
“A lot of the people that come to us have been turned away by attorneys and legal aid organizations. We’re not in competition with them, and we’re helping with the logistics of going to small claims court,” Lopez says.
Based on her research and experience, she found most parties were unprepared.
“They would go in front of the judge to present, taking papers out of their backpacks. The judges were frustrated and kept sending people back out, saying, ‘Go get your stuff together,’” says Lopez, 28, who was born in Colombia and grew up in Texas, Florida and California. She now lives in Los Angeles.
Common legal issues for People Clerk clients include landlords not giving back apartment security deposits, unpaid invoices, contract disputes and fights involving personal loans. The business has three price plans. One, for $49, includes serving a complaint and an evidence packet. The $148 plan also includes a software-generated lawsuit, which People Clerk serves and files. That fee is refundable if you lose. Another plan, for $297, adds attorney review and feedback. “Sometimes they will rephrase something to make it more succinct or put what’s most important first,” Lopez says.
The same month People Clerk opened, California Supreme Court Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye issued an order suspending all jury trials because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many small claims court proceedings paused.
“It was awful. I launched, and I thought I was going to have to shut down right away. We didn’t know how long this would last. Then the courts started figuring things out, and in August , Los Angeles Superior Court launched virtual hearings,” Lopez says. The business started to grow, and Lozano quit his Walmart job so he could also work with People Clerk full time.
Lopez says hundreds of people have used People Clerk, mostly for small claims cases in Los Angeles Superior Court. The business was one of 12 in 2021 to get funding from the Los Angeles office of Techstars, a startup accelerator.
Daniella Pineros, a Florida lawyer who has known Lopez since they were children, says she was unsure of Lopez’s plan, but “once she explained what she wanted to do, it made 100% sense. I don’t know why someone hasn’t done it before because there are so many people who go through small claims court, and they don’t really know what’s going on. I think what she’s doing is giving people the tools to go through the process.”