Mary Bonsor is the award winning CEO and Co-Founder of Flex Legal, a platform to connect those in need of legal services with interim lawyers and paralegals for a flexible, on demand service. 

Established in 2016, Flex Legal is the UK’s fastest growing legal services provider with over 5000+ paralegals, 250+ lawyers, and 300+ law graduates in its talent pool, serving 350+ clients.

Flex provides a win-win for lawyers/paralegals and clients. For clients, Flex is a high quality talent pool of legal professionals available for times of peak demand or special projects. For lawyers, paralegals and law students it allows flexible working and the opportunity to build experience and gain exposure to different types of client and legal practice on a flexible basis.

And that’s not all.

Flex has recently started offering their own software to law firms so that they can build and manage their own pools of flexible resources. 

In this interview we discover how Mary, drawing on her own experiences as a law student seeking work experience, decided to launch Flex Legal. In doing so she and her team have built a different type of alternative legal services provider, uniquely differentiated by its personal touch and tech optimised processes.

Mary, how does your career begin? How did you go from being a solicitor to start-up founder?

I went to Leeds university and studied politics and sociology, and to be honest, like a lot of people, didn’t know what I wanted to do after university! 

However, I did know that I wanted to continue my studies and liked the thought of problem solving and helping people. And that is how I fell into law!

I did my GDL and LPC after uni, and while I was doing that, I really struggled to get work experience.  

It was frustrating. When I would walk around the city I’d see lots of law firms and would have jumped at any opportunity to get stuck in.  But those opportunities were few and far between it seemed, or at least very limited.

Eventually I did manage to land a training contract, joining Winckworth Sherwood LLP, which was next door to the Kaplan Law School. 

Whilst at Winckworth I’d see lots of law students passing to and fro and in and out of the Kaplan Law School. It was then, reflecting on my own challenges obtaining legal experience and my training contract, that I had the gem of an idea, which was to find a way to connect law students with quality work experience and other inroads to the profession.

How did you go from that initial idea to taking action?

Slowly. It took 4 to 5 years for me to be brave enough to take the plunge.  That came about when I met Jimmy Vestbirk, the founder of LegalGeek, and my co-founder for Flex Legal.  

We spent about two years researching and testing the concept around our day jobs on the weekends and evenings, eventually building up to a trial with one law firm and five paralegals.

Around that time we were also introduced to James Moore, our first technical hire. 

Was there a natural tipping point when it became necessary to go all in with Flex, or was it more of a gradual transition from your day jobs into making a go of Flex Legal full time?

Getting investment was the tipping point. I didn’t have huge amounts of savings; I couldn’t drop everything and launch into Flex Legal immediately without the support of a salary.  Securing investment was the greenlight to leave my legal career behind and give Flex Legal my all.

It was quite a balanced shift. When I left my firm I ended up doing some flexible consulting for them whilst gradually ramping up my focus on Flex Legal. Eventually things ramped up enough with Flex Legal that I transitioned to Flex Legal full time. 

Looking back, it was a really nice balance of researching the business problem, testing it, getting the investment and so on, which altogether gave me the courage to give it my full attention. Flex Legal has been growing and growing ever since!

What do you think was behind that early initial growth? Was it a tight fit to an unmet need or was it something completely different? 

In many ways what we do isn’t new or novel. Alternative legal resourcing has been around for years and years.  But it was the way we were doing it that was original.

We were one of the first in the space to create a pool of law students, both to enable their access to quality work experience, and as another type of resource for legal buyers to procure. 

Some of these buyers were legaltech start-ups looking for legal talent to provide domain expertise. For instance, helping build, train and test AI models for contract review technology platforms. This was a really differentiating set of experiences for those law students vs. traditional legal work experience, which we also helped facilitate.

We also focused heavily on a great user experience driven by tech. Our platform made it easy to meet and assess talent. Each individual on the platform had a profile, including a short video to capture their personality and style. When we pitched our platform to people they were blown away by the personal, human touch that we’d added to an otherwise transactional experience common to other businesses. It really helped buyers get to know candidates quickly and easily, saving time on both sides of the resourcing equation.

And we’ve really expanded from there. The engine behind our platform connects everything, automating a lot of our processes such as time sheets and similar.  This helps keep us competitive and enhances our value to clients.  

This technology is now being used to make it easy for aspiring lawyers to log their qualified work experience toward their SQE (The Solicitors Qualifying Examination, which is a single, rigorous assessment for all aspiring solicitors that also combines a requirement for qualifying legal work experience).

Note: for more on the SQE, see Flex’s excellent FAQ here.

So in that sense our tech is really the means to achieve two goals: the first is to create a human and personal experience when matchmaking between the supply and demand side, and the second is to ensure we are as efficient and cost effective as possible.

We like to think you can’t automate your relationships with your clients and your candidates in recruitment, but you can and should automate everything else in between.  

My co-founder James is great at observing our processes and finding ways to continually improve them with technology so they become faster, more effective and efficient.

Having been a client of Flex Legal before, and having myself struggled to obtain legal work experience as a law student, I recall a major USP of Flex Legal was the fact it was open to law students and emphasised finding appropriate legal experience for them. Can you elaborate on that aspect of Flex Legal?

It’s a massive part of our origin and mission. 

As I mentioned, I struggled to find experience at the start of my career and wanted to widen the opportunities available to students. So getting law students onto the platform and, more importantly, into quality placements with real legal work experience opportunities was crucial for us. And we succeeded. Our students have done all sorts of placements, at law firms, in-house legal teams and many legaltech vendors.  

It’s the best feeling ever when you get messages from people saying, “thanks for helping me secure my first work experience, which led to another and another and eventually into a training contract”. 

As of right now we have helped 371 people secure training contracts, and we’ve helped create around 10,000 work experience opportunities for law students that have indirectly led to training contracts or other roles.

Another thing we’ve done recently is provide our Flex Legal Journal free to anyone looking to qualify as a solicitor via the SQE, which requires a detailed set of evidence demonstrating that you have gained qualifying legal work experience at up to 4 places over 2 years. The Flex Legal Journal allows aspiring lawyers to record and reflect on such qualifying experiences and to track progress against the SRA’s competency framework and to share and request the required confirmations of supervisors during such experiences.

What other USPs have you built into Flex?

A lot of ALSPs started off with lawyers first and then added paralegals, whereas we took a different track and did the reverse, starting with paralegals and law students and adding lawyers later.

Our culture and values resonate with our people and customers.  Our culture is about being responsive, positive and being human. One way we are able to be responsive is via our technology, but also partly because of our culture of responsiveness. 

What were the biggest challenges to launching Flex Legal? 

We always tried to bootstrap Flex Legal. We wanted to raise a little bit of money to get going but didn’t want to go down the VC route of raising millions. That was a challenge – you have to get the money in and keep growing your revenue from early on; but that’s a great discipline to have from the start. A lot of start-ups do the opposite, which can work, but can be much higher risk and so wasn’t for us.

Another one of the general challenges is always that you don’t know what you don’t know. When we sent out our first set of T’s and C’s, which we had drafted ourselves, they got torn to pieces by a law firm!

Rather than reacting badly, we expected these events and accepted they are a natural part of the very steep learning curve you climb as a first time founder. 

You learn, iterate and improve and move forward through experience.  

And on financing, I think you can raise too much money too soon. That can sometimes be distracting or introduce additional decision makers too soon and although can give you a lot of potential press, I always try to remember that “fundraising is for vanity, profit is for sanity” that your idea works.

Another challenge was sales. I had worked in a reasonably small law firm and didn’t have a huge network at the time. I was still relatively new to the legal industry. 

But I’ve been, and continue to be, amazed by how much you can get done in terms of networking just by being confident and reaching out to people. It’s not easy, or always comfortable, but if you put yourself forward and be genuine a little can go a long way.

LinkedIn is incredible for one thing. Anyone can set up a business page on LinkedIn, or Instagram or Twitter and so on and with a bit of work, reach a very large audience and contact specific individuals with which to build relationships. It’s incredible what we’ve achieved just through reaching out to the right people.

The supply side of our business – the law students, paralegals and lawyers – is easier to build and manage. The demand side – the clients who procure Flex’s legal professionals – is trickier. Getting into FTSE 250 or 100 companies is a long progress. Finding the right decision makers and fit between them, our model and our candidates requires careful time and attention to create the right relationship.  It’s also very similar for getting into large law firms. In either case the sales cycle is quite long and complicated between initial contact and booking revenue with that client. 

Sales is definitely an overlooked skill in legal organisations and legal training. It is however, a skillset that is very valuable. At the end of the day you always have to sell at least one thing – yourself – so it makes sense to gain this experience where you can. Is there anything specific on the subject of sales that has helped you develop the sales function at Flex Legal?

Yes, we used a company called Pareto Law, who provide sales training to grads straight out of uni. They’ve been brilliant. From first walking into their offices I was blown away by the welcome and their delivery.

I think everyone should learn sales. If you’re a lawyer, to become a partner you need to sell. When you work with clients at whatever level you are always to some extent selling yourself and your organisation. A key part of that skillset, is listening – people generally talk too much and listen less than they should. Especially lawyers!

For that reason we have rigorous sales training when people join, and a commercial development scheme, or our CDS as we call it. Everyone that joins us is trained in each.

Being more commercial is a key skill to master. It’s one of the big questions you get asked again and again when you are applying to join a firm, or work with one. That was an area with which I struggled when starting out as a lawyer so it’s important to me that we help our paralegals master this skill.  To help them do that we involve them and show them how we run Flex Legal, how the finances are managed, how the sales process works, the booking process, the operations and so on. We believe that providing this overview of the commercial cogs in our operation will help them gain hands on experience of commercial activities and skills. 

I think this is one of our biggest successes with paralegals who’ve joined us. Every paralegal that has completed our CDS has gone on to secure a training contract, which has been brilliant to see! We have had 28 officially through us and I am determined to help the current cohort achieve the goal too.

That sounds like a great idea. I would have enjoyed getting to see and understand the commercial side of a legal business. In most legal organisations, especially Big Law, the business of law is kept separate from the practice of law side until relatively late in your career. 

I agree. When I would be working on a litigation for example, I wouldn’t always connect the dots in terms of what does this actually mean for the business and therefore why it is so important? When you’re busy lawyering you don’t always have the bandwidth or wherewithal to ask these sorts of questions. It’s kind of odd that it isn’t made a more significant part of the job on average because as you become more senior, the partners who are doing very well are the ones who understand their clients’ businesses in great detail and the drivers behind how and why they make their decisions. I think this could be trained into lawyers much sooner and much better.

Thinking about that switch from being a lawyer into a founder role and starting a business, were there any particularly transferable skills and equally, any skills you had to unlearn to succeed as a founder?

In terms of transferable skills, I think lots of lawyers enjoy people and enjoy helping people solve their personal or business problems. In doing so, you develop good communication and people skills, and the best lawyers also are very empathetic.  All of these were crucial to setting up Flex Legal and immediately transferable, and remain very valuable to this day.

In terms of things I’ve had to unlearn or adjust, one of the first things I grappled with was rethinking how I felt about curiosity and not knowing things.  

As a lawyer you’re often expected to know the answer to everything. When you are faced with the unknown, particularly something entirely alien and new, it can be very anxiety inducing. 

I always used to get really nervous when I hadn’t done something before rather than think to myself, “oh, this is a great opportunity. I’m going to be curious, Google it and see what I can learn”.

My co-founder James has been great at helping me develop this skill. 

When we first started working together I’d ask a lot of questions about how to do something and James would simply suggest I go Google it, and if, in an hour, I’d not answered my own question, to come back and discuss the problem’s solution.  

Unsurprisingly you learn a lot more via that process than simply being spoon fed the answer. It also builds confidence that you can step into new domains and problems and figure out solutions without necessarily being a deep subject matter expert as is the case in legal roles.

Creating an environment at Flex Legal that encourages this mindset has been important to us. I think it’s how you attract, nurture and retain people – by allowing them to be challenged and to challenge themselves in a safe environment so that they are constantly learning and feel energised about doing so. If you’re not learning in a job, it’s often time to move on. We want to make sure the entire team is always learning and growing.

One thing I’ve really noticed from reading leadership books, and something which I really don’t think happens at law firms as much, is the understanding within leadership that to be a good leader you need to understand your employees, what they want to achieve in their life and why.  For instance, do they want to one day set up a farm in Somerset, or do they want to get to be a top performing sales person? In either case, if you don’t know this about them, how can you help them and retain them? The answer is: you can’t. You have to take a genuine and deep interest in your employees so that you can manage and lead. If you do so, you’ll help them become the best they can be and that will keep them happy, motivated and constantly hungry to learn more. 

Learning how to give really good feedback in this context is also key. If you build the right relationships, the trust and the right environment you can be effective in providing constructive criticism because it is easier to show that you are doing so because you genuinely care about a person’s development, and enabling them to be the best that they can be.  Not only that, it does wonders for collaboration and creating a great culture where everyone is pulling in the same direction for the same reasons.

Sales skills as I said, were an area I had to develop and build out among the team.  And as I say, sales is something for which lawyers should receive more training and much earlier in their career. 

I’d say learning to put yourself out there, to be bold and to reach out to people – to ask them for a coffee and so on – is also crucial. 

Getting good with spreadsheets, and Excel generally, has been very worthwhile. I really think lawyers could do so much more with Excel. I’ve gotten so much out of getting better at Excel – it’s saved me a ton of time, helping to automate basic admin and so on.  

In addition to learning new skills, how does founding a startup differ from being a lawyer in terms of the activities? What would you say the kind of key differences are in the tasks and responsibilities you have as a founder versus those you had as a lawyer?

As a founder I was doing the invoices, sales, being a COO. You’re a whole mixture of roles early on, and often for quite some time until the team can grow sufficiently. 

You need to be curious and get comfortable learning on the job and not always knowing the answer in every scenario, but being prepared to find it out.  

Now my role is very different.  It’s more focused on management and strategy and less so on the day-to-day operations.  I certainly didn’t do any of these sorts of activities as a lawyer, especially not the management and strategy side of things.

As our Head of Manchester once said to me – you have a DJ and dancers, and I’ve probably moved from the dancefloor – as a lawyer – to becoming a DJ – as a founder which is also a challenge in itself.  As to scale a business properly, you need to make yourself redundant to a certain extent so it is not reliant on its founders. Going off on maternity leave was a great test of this! 

The management and strategy side is a skill I am constantly learning.  When I set up Flex Legal it was really about helping people and seeing where it would go… but now Flex is 32 people and we need to think carefully about where we’re going and what we’re doing and our two year plan and five year plan and so on. As part of that I need to think carefully about the team’s career progression opportunities and our culture.  These have all been new challenges for me, but hugely rewarding as I’ve worked through them and continue to do so.

How, how have you gone about growing a team? Is there anything you’ve learned along the way that you think would be good to continue emphasizing as you grow? 

I think culture is king. We’ve definitely made some mistakes in the past when hiring at Flex Legal. But I think if you get people who fit the culture, your chances of success – and theirs – become significantly higher.

As I think Bill Gates once said, if you hire someone, it’s your job to train them properly or get rid of them. Don’t wait around for them or you to become unhappy with the situation. It’s your responsibility as an employer to own an employee’s development and their fit within the organisation. As an employer you can’t take a backseat in someone’s development.

It’s common sense really. If you go to the expense of bringing someone into your company, to your team, it’s only the beginning of that relationship once they join. You need to nurture them, challenge them and help them develop. If you don’t, why bother hiring people to begin with?

One challenge we’ve encountered as we’ve grown is knowledge management, and generally making sure we have effective means to share and communicate knowledge. As we continue to expand the team it is becoming more important to add structure and process so we can onboard people as quickly as possible.  We’ve been finding ways to use tech to help in this effort.  

When you think about knowledge management in this context do you mean content and / or process?

For us it’s mostly process rather than content. We spend a lot of time process mapping, which I always find very interesting for what it says about our organisation, where we’re at, and where we’re going.

I say that because whenever you run a process mapping exercise you always find out new things about the way you work, or the way people understand things differently for right or for wrong reasons.  These always create amazing opportunities to improve the process and most importantly, the relationships between the team. 

In terms of content, the knowledge we prize is knowledge of clients. We embed this knowledge into our processes wherever possible, partly so the entire team can remain up to date with regard to our clients, each interaction and the current status of each relationship.

Do you use a CRM system to track those client relationships and associated knowledge among the team?

We do. We’re actually building one inside our own platform right now. We’ve used a lot of off the shelf solutions in the past and found as we’ve grown that none quite fit the unique way we work. Having our own in-house tech team is great. They can look at the best bits from HubSpot and Salesforce and similar and cherry pick the functionality that best fits our way of working, and then integrate this into our other systems so everything becomes more and more seamless and joined up in terms of information. This also helps keep things lean.

How big is the tech team? Did you find it tricky hiring the right technical talent at the outset and expanding the technical team over time?

The team is 9 currently. It could easily be 18 and we’d still have loads for everyone to do!

In terms of building the tech team, I’ve been so lucky to partner with James. James has previously grown a technical team from one to 300 developers. He knows exactly who and what is needed to build a successful tech team. 

This question is one I get asked alot by friends interested in starting a business, which I think underscores that it’s not easy to find the right initial talent, especially the right technical talent able to grow a team.

How did you and James meet? How did James get into legal from a tech background?

James knew a partner at Taylor Vinters that was doing a lot of M&A work for a company at which he worked.  Through that experience James realized that there were many exciting challenges and opportunities in the legal space with which tech could help. He felt legal  was ripe for intervention in terms of tech and good processes.

From that initial interest James got wind of Legal Geek, and via Legal Geek and Jimmy Vestbirk, James and I were introduced. We chatted through the idea and after a 3 month trial period of working together we all decided it was the right partnership to continue and the rest is history!

The other thing is that we interviewed about 10 people to join as a tech co-founder. Several were very bullish on being able to build our platform very quickly, perhaps within two weeks or less. 

Now that was initially very attractive, but we very quickly realised that wasn’t what we were after. 

Instead, when we met James, he turned things on its head and said this isn’t a sprint, but a marathon and that he wanted to dig into the problem and the surrounding domain first and understand it before promising a solution. He was very honest that he wouldn’t – and likely we wouldn’t – know exactly what we needed until he got to know us. 

I instantly warmed to that. It was refreshing versus the other candidates. James wasn’t promising the earth, but promising he’d get to know us and the problem space first, and to take it from there once he’d understood everything in more detail. I liked this approach because, unlike the other candidates, James was willing to admit he didn’t know the industry or problem in great depth, but wanted to understand this in more detail in order to ensure we built a great partnership and a great platform.

What tips would you give to someone wanting to start their own business, especially from a legal background?

Test your idea cheaply and without the tech, and if you can solve a problem without complicated tech, then do so. If you can solve a problem without using tech, think about streamlining your processes some more before you bring in the tech. Getting good ideas and solid processes down first will make the tech a lot easier, and a lot more impactful than if you try and do things in reverse and launch into a load of tech that might miss the mark entirely.

There’s lots of other interactions that are probably more important than tech, especially early on when you are testing your idea and refining it with users. 

Networking is super important. You never know where one conversation will go, or where a person will end up or who they know, and people are so generous with their time for the most part, especially if approached in the right way. There’s no excuse these days – you can find anyone now in LinkedIn, Google or via other social media relevant to your niche. Never feel afraid to ask someone for a coffee or a chat. 

And finally – just give it a go. Don’t overthink things too much when approaching people to help with your business, whether it be advice, knowledge sharing, introductions or whatever. Be bold and enjoy getting outside of your comfort zone!

I think so many people say to me “you were so brave to set Flex up”, but I don’t necessarily see it that way. Sure, you need to be brave to approach people and try new things, but I think the most important thing is to think “why not? What’s the worst that could happen?”. Once you start framing things this way, it’s easier to rationalise that if things backfire – little or large – you will often have a solid enough fallback position, which makes it easier to take risks and be bold. 

Thinking this way will also help you stay just outside of your comfort zone, where you will ultimately learn and grow most. It’s easier to tread water and get too comfortable, but you won’t be pushing yourself and growing as an individual. My advice is to always try and be challenged, whatever it is that you do!

A related question, what do you know now that you wish you’d known earlier in your careers?

I would have set up Flex Legal much earlier! I wish I had been braver sooner and just got over that. It was roughly five years from the idea to actually taking action and going all in on Flex Legal. Of those five years, we spent around two years doing research in evenings and weekends, and I think in hindsight we could have brought forward our timelines quite a bit. As I said, the turning point was getting investment, which to us was the final proof we needed to charge ahead, but I think we could have reached that point sooner if I was to do things again differently.

Was there any reason why you didn’t do it sooner? Was it simply being younger and not having the confidence and experience that you had some later on? Or was it also something completely different? 

I think it was fear of failure. I couldn’t get stuck in until I could get my head around the idea that it didn’t matter if it failed, and the only real failure would be failing to give it a go! 

As soon as that changed, my entire thought process switched gears and I said to myself, “right, let’s do this!”.

Did having a profession give you some sense that you had a fallback option if things didn’t work out?

Yes it did. I think if you’ve got a profession, such as being a lawyer or an accountant or similar, there’s always something you can fall back on.  It’s a good position to be in.

It’s not like you’re closing that door forever. You can always re-open it again. 

I also think things have changed a lot for our generation. More people today are keen to move laterally to go up and down and don’t simply stay in the same organisation or team, or even role, to progress. I think this is more exciting and something more and more people will continue to do.

That’s how it was for me with Flex Legal. I was working my way up one career ladder as a lawyer, but when I started Flex Legal, I was starting again at the bottom of a new ladder – that of being a founder and CEO of a start-up.  Right now I’m climbing that ladder, but I am sure one day I will be climbing a different ladder again as things change in my life and career.

We’re all going to be working for longer. For that reason it’s more important than ever to be making sure that you are actually enjoying what you do and building the right sills, experiences and connections every day. 

It’s very easy to come out of Uni without a real sense of what you really want to do, and even if you do, it often changes as you get older, experience more things and work in more places with more people. At different points in your career you will have different energies and ambitions – at some points you might want to be a rockstar constantly pushing and chasing the next big thing at work, and at other times you might need to take it steadier for a while.  Recognising this is important.

Finally, do you recommend any books, blogs, podcasts, or other media that you found useful or interesting as you’ve transitioned from being a lawyer to a startup founder and building a business?

Yes, lots! I always try and read a leadership, startup or scale-up book every month. I love it because you get different ideas every time you do. 

Even if you don’t agree with everything you read, you always pick up some nugget of actionable insight that can be applied to your business and team.

One of my favourites – and one I keep beside my bed for easy reference – is Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This book has some great strategies for building and maintaining a highly effective personal and professional business life without burning out. 

Right now I am reading Measure What Matters by John Doerr, the legendary venture capitalist. Doerr was an early investor in Google, and introduced Google to OKRs, a system originally pioneered by Intel’s Andy Grove as a management technique for aligning and measuring top level organisational strategy and objectives up and down an organisation.

Radical Candour by Kim Scott is excellent. Scott earned her stripes as a highly successful manager at Google before moving to Apple where she developed a class on optimal management. Radical Candor draws directly on her experiences at these companies, explaining the sweet spot between managers who are obnoxiously aggressive on the one side and ruinously empathetic on the other. It is about providing guidance, which involves a mix of praise as well as criticism – delivered to produce better results and help your employees develop their skills and increase success, and building the right culture to support these conversations, which aren’t always comfortable but needn’t be negative.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni is a really interesting read about how teams work well together and why. It stresses how being accountable to each other, being transparent and having each other’s backs are the core tenets of what makes a strong and high performing team, and the absence of those traits is what holds a team back. 

I find reading books like these is a great way to learn from others; it makes me think outside the box. It also gives me food for thought to challenge James and the team, to get everyone challenging how we do things and why. It can really help generate new ideas and improved ways of working. It’s a great to way to make sure you are constantly learning and not simply standing still! We now have a management team book club so we can all continue to learn and challenge each other as we grow!

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