Harnessing the power of the next generation of lawyers – an interview with Mary Bonsor, CEO and Co-Founder of F-LEX
If an in-house legal team is overloaded with work but the business can’t fund extra lawyers, what are the options for GCs? Is the upcoming generation of legal practitioners a valuable, under-used pool of resource?
Sophie Gould talks to Mary Bonsor, CEO and Co-Founder of F-LEX, an online platform connecting law student paralegals with GCs and law firms needing additional resource, about the difference they’re making with their service.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how F-LEX came into being …
I did my GDL and LPC at BPP, then qualified into a law firm. I loved my time as a lawyer as was very lucky to be qualifying into such a great firm, Winckworth Sherwood LLP. We were based next to Kaplan Law School and I would often look out the window at law students and think, I really need some help, if only I could grab them through the window and get them to come and help me do some bundles. And that’s how the idea for F-LEX came about.
I started going to legal tech events, including the first Legal Geek event. I approached one of the speakers, who was an ex-managing partner, and told him I’d got this idea and that I’d love to get his thoughts on it. He said to come back to him in a few weeks with a business plan, which I did. And then he said he’d invest.
I tried to prove the idea before I went back to him by placing four law students into a law firm. I put together some very basic T&Cs and charged a fee, which went straight to the student. I wasn’t making any money, but it was a proof of concept.
Once I’d got the investment, I then met my co-founder, James Moore. He’s a technologist with loads of commercial experience, so we were very lucky to have him. I’m more the client facing, sales person, and he’s very much the behind the scenes, operations and T&Cs and tech side. It’s a good balance.
We set up the company October 2015, but I didn’t leave my law firm till August 2016. So, 2016 is when we went live. We’ve just passed our two-year anniversary, and we’re now a team of fifteen. We've got over 115 clients and over 2,500 law students on our books with hubs in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Cambridge.
What do you offer to students besides the work opportunities?
We produce a newsletter to help students with tips and training contract applications. We also provide training sessions – for example, we did one on GDPR. If we aren’t able to place people all of the time, we want to offer other useful things and we are in the process of doing some online training videos for anyone on our platform. We can help with really quite simple areas such as how to write a professional email and answer the phone properly, not being afraid to ask questions – the things which I don’t think you're really taught through your legal studies. It’s in our interest to make them as good as possible. The whole reason for setting up F-LEX was to help law students get experience. But with that should come skills, helping them with CVs, and being transparent about roles.
I do not like it when I see law firms say they only want Russell Group university students or they only want all A stars. I think the more diverse candidates you get, the more innovation you get. Everyone deserves a chance. Obviously, we do have to be careful about quality and ensure standards are met. If someone’s grades aren’t that good, but they’ve had lots of experience, I’d still let them through the door. And if they have had no experience but have strong academics, again, I’d let them in and we’d try and help build their confidence. It might be that they’ve got no experience, so let’s get them a day assisting a big name barrister in court. There are also a lot of other options than the traditional route which needs to be talked about more.
How do you work with in-house teams?
We have a range of in-house clients from FTSE 250 companies to start ups. We actually have more in-house clients than law firms at the moment. In-house teams tend to have very fixed budgets and headcount so don’t get given any budget for more employees. We often find that the GC has a huge amount to do, both low-end work and high-end, and needs support. It might be a big project or it might just be having someone in two days a week to help with the low-end pile of work that the GC just isn’t getting to themselves. In terms of contract management systems and using legal tech, paralegals are probably more tech savvy than some of the lawyers.
We find that we’re used for a whole range of things. So, it might be corporate due diligence, subject access requests, or particular projects like GDPR or Brexit. Compliance has been a big thing, and we’ve provided people to review documents and put them in a database. It might involve checking that all the contracts have a particular clause or actually filling a data room with all the information. Jobs like that are quite admin heavy but we are seeing a huge movement towards the important of legal operations, and our paralegal resource is a great way to ensure your legal operations are all in good order.
GDPR has provided lots of short term placements, dealing for example with the influx of subject access requests. The work has usually involved reviewing all the documents to find the relevant information, and we find that we can offer a cost effective solution to these. They also need to be dealt with promptly, and so responsiveness is key.
An example of this was when we assisted S-RM. S-RM had a huge influx of work due to GDPR coming into play and they needed extra resource. We worked closely with them and they found it particularly useful being able to turn on and off the tap, as and when they needed. If a client is particularly impressed with a candidate, they can then transfer across, almost a “try before you buy”, which we have found clients have found really useful.
Roddy Priestley from S-RM “. Despite being a business of around 200 people, we were unable to resource these projects internally so we turned to F-LEX. We needed the paralegals to go through a lot of contracts checking whether they were GDPR compliant and helping amend the contracts if not. It needed people who could hit the ground running. It went so well, that we offered 3 of them full time roles.
Another different example is how we helped Cambridge University Press. They needed some help because they just couldn’t get tasks done at the bottom of the pile, and although the tasks were not urgent, they kept being put off. Catie Sheret, General Counsel and Company Secretary said “Our Paralegal has been providing a broad mix of support, from addressing queries related to our freelancer onboarding process sent to our central mailbox; to helping check the accuracy of a database of archived contracts to ensure the metadata provides accurate information on key contract information. He has also been helping manage our domain name registrations, and assisted with legal operations work to identify process improvements we can make to our digital contracting.”
There's pushback now with some in-house teams saying they’re not going to pay their law firms for work done by a trainee or assistant – how do you get around that?
I know lots of in-house teams use their panel law firms to get a free trainee for a short period, but you can only do that for so long. With F-LEX, we’re reducing our clients’ fixed overheads. We employ all our people; we give them sick pay, holiday pay, and pension contributions and run payroll – they’re effectively casual workers. This gives firms confidence in us as they know that the tax is getting paid and that we’re be responsible for our employees. This is going to become particularly important with IR35 coming through in 2020.
We make it as easy and as efficient as possible for GCs to use us. We've met everyone who’s on our system, we’ve interviewed them and checked quality, we've checked their right to work and their education certificates, and we can do DBS checks and get references as well if needed. A firm might call me to say they need someone tomorrow who has commercial experience and can speak French – I would search to find the people who match, check their availability and then send a link to the firm so they can choose who they want to come in. We’re doing all the work behind the scenes and the GC or the law firm only get the shortlist.
It’s all through our online portal: we've got all the invoices, all the timesheets, all the data right here. We’re using tech to make it all really simple. At the moment, we’re working on a dashboard so that we can see all the information in one place more easily. We often get asked by clients for a record of their spend and being able to provide that information neatly will be of huge benefit to in-house teams in terms their reporting back the value they add to the business.
What skills do clients tend to be looking for?
Both in-house and in law firms, they tend to want skills in document review and in using e-discovery software such as Relativity. Our in-house clients are also looking for commercial and corporate skills, so drafting NDAs or SDLT returns or AP1s for example – generally, completing basic forms. I always try to put someone forward who already has that experience, but also someone who wants that experience, and persuade the client to help train them up and give them the opportunity because they're so keen and would love the opportunity.
How do you sit down with the in-house teams? Are there instances where it hasn’t worked and how do you address that?
Luckily, it hasn’t been too often, maybe 3 times where it’s not worked. We make it clear to the law students that if it’s not going well, then the placement will stop. We’re still new so it’s our reputation that needs to be managed. It’s usually the case that the person simply wasn’t the right fit for the team. We’d get feedback from the in-house team and give the student constructive feedback. Often, it’s an easy thing to fix. For example, we had some feedback that someone didn’t seem very engaged or interested. When we told him, he was shocked – that’s just miscommunication and all he had to do was make an extra effort. He also had a training contract which might have meant he thought he could be more relaxed about his placement, which is not the case.
What about confidentiality, is that something that some in-house teams worry about?
There's a confidentiality clause in our T&Cs with the paralegal, but lots of our clients also get them to sign an NDA. We encourage that because having an extra layer of someone signing something is another reminder of how important confidentiality is. We always say that if there's a conflict of interest – and they’ve been taught about this in their LPC and GDL – you do need to speak up.
Best Practice Framework for In-House Training Contracts
A guide developed by those who have trained in-house and who believe in-house training contracts are a credible alternative route into the legal profession.
The Framework is a tool for general counsels, training principals, supervisors and trainees, and distils some of the confusion around what is required of an in-house training contract provider, by pinpointing the necessary materials available to assist with establishing and providing an in-house training programme.
It aims to guide the user through each step of the training contract process and offer advice (through the experiences of the Aspire Best Practice Working Group - a professional development and networking forum for in-house lawyers starting out in their career, facilitated by LexisNexis) on what makes a great in-house training programme.
Further reading for subscribers:
First 100 days as an in-house lawyer - Congratulations on securing your first in-house role! You’ve done the hard work of deciding to build your career in-house and you’ve found a company you respect and a role that suits you, so now you need to start planning how you’re going to make an impact and succeed.
Personal development tool—checklist - checklist of 25 practical and largely cost-free personal development opportunities in-house counsel.