As part of our Women in Legal Tech event on the 2nd & 3rd November, we are releasing a series of interviews with inspiring women. Their stories offer advice and guidance for anyone thinking of entering the world of legal tech. Following the event, we will be collating all of the interviews in a free e-book. Keep an eye on our social media to get your copy.
More details of the Women in Legal Tech event can be found here.
Mary Bonsor is the founder of F-LEX, a platform which connects freelance paralegals with firms seeking additional help. She made the jump after working as a lawyer and seeing the gap between those looking for work and experience, and firms with no way of finding that talent.
Mary offered us advice on starting a business, and seeking investment. For anyone thinking of getting into the legal tech, this interview provides a real insight into the business.
What gave you the final push to decide: I’m going to start my own business?
When I was practicing, my law firm was right next to a law school. I saw all these students wandering past my window and thought, why can’t I request one of those students to help me? I was very lucky that I told the ex managing partner at Clifford Chance about my idea and he wanted to invest. That was what gave me the courage to jump. The timing itself was good too. There is an increasing importance placed on work experience and we offer a way to get that.
How did you fund your business in the first year and would you recommend it for others?
As I mentioned, I was lucky to get private investment. The investors we have are very helpful. Their connections open doors and they understand the concept and the industry in detail. It can be very easy to get stuck with a bad investor which can be disastrous for your business. Make sure investors are the right fit for you. Venture Capitalists, for example, can be very active investors and require a lot of oversight, which in turn can mean a lot of work for you but they could also open doors and provide huge opportunity. Before we make decisions, we get our investors’ opinions, but Angel investors tend to take more of a backseat.
What did you prioritise when starting a new business?
The technology behind our idea is brilliant and James Moore, the other co founder has managed to make the platform very easy to use and efficient. The key thing to remember is the resource behind it though. People in technology can often forget what the root of the product is. For us, our paralegals are our product. They provide the service and deliver the value for our clients. Remember that you can test your idea without necessarily having to build the tech behind it. For us this meant building a spreadsheet of paralegals and clients in Google Drive, and personally matching them. This success meant we were able to show the concept was strong and that we had repeat business. Whatever your idea, test it first without the big technology solution to ensure you are meeting a need for your clients. James is always making us do it on a bit pf paper first to sketch it out!
Did you have a plan B or did you jump without a parachute?
I was quite lucky because my firm let me come back on a part time basis. I started quite slowly and could supplement my income while F-LEX was growing. When it got busier, I jumped ship. There is a lot you can do in the evenings and weekends next to your job. We’re such a generation of ideas, I think it’s good to start slowly, give it a go and see how far you can get.
What has been the biggest challenge in your first year? Did you see it coming?
Initially we had designed F-LEX around the independent contractor model; the Uber model if you will. However we had to completely rethink that model after working with larger firms. We run payroll for our paralegals now and have moved away from the gig model at our client’s request. It’s important to be flexible and go where you are directed. Your idea won’t be perfect and won’t work exactly as you originally planned. But flexibility means it will succeed in the end.
What piece of technology/software has made the biggest impact on your working life in the last five years?
The whole gig economy technology and their apps have made the biggest impact on me. From Uber to Airbnb, everything is an app. I also believe the gig economy will play a bigger role in the legal world.
What do you see as the biggest challenge for legal tech in the next five years?
Law firms at the moment use the big buzz word ‘innovation’. However the development of AI and legal technology are still young. I think they will create huge impact, but I think it will take longer than people think. Firms which start using technology will be less behind. However, large firms are more likely to have the means to buy this tech. It will lead to a lot of mergers with smaller firms who don’t really have room to use legal tech.
How do you maintain a good work/life balance? And does technology help you with that?
I think to have a good balance you have to be quite good at switching off. I’m bad at it. Being your own boss does offer more flexibility but your mind is constantly working. I do however love my job and it’s fun and challenging and hopefully it will all be worth it in the end!
What advice would you like to have had during your career that you had to find out for yourself?
Probably to think creatively about what career path you want to follow. Too many universities push you towards the traditional legal route (magic circle, private practice). Try to dig a bit deeper to see what else is out there. There are so many opportunities out there. Many of my friends left law because they were stuck and did not like their job and now the legal world has lost their amazing talent. Even in firms you can do so many other cool things like project management, innovation or legal tech.