The legal profession is undergoing a period of dramatic change. New technology is reshaping the way legal services and bought and provided. The training of law students, however, has been slow to respond, leaving too many students ill-equipped for the workplace.
F-LEX is changing that, connecting law students wanting to give their career a head-start with law firms and in-house teams in need of paralegal support through an innovative technology platform. Spiranti met F-LEX CEO Mary Bonsor and head of business development Louise Hall to discover how.
F-LEX was established two years ago by former lawyer Mary Bonsor and software entrepreneur James Moore. Put simply, it is a technology platform that connects pre-vetted law students with law firms and in-house legal teams needing short term additional resource.
The business, profitable within its first three months, is growing rapidly. Its clients include many of the top 100 law firms, sole practitioners and large corporates. Now 15-strong, with offices in London and Manchester, F-LEX is embarking on second-round fund-raising to support further growth.
“The idea is very simple,” explains Mary. “If you need 20 Spanish-speaking paralegals in Manchester on Monday the F-LEX platform can provide them. All are pre-vetted and with the necessary checks to ensure they meet the standards law firms or in-house teams demand.
“Paralegals registered with us gain valuable paid experience whilst our clients get the resource they need without having to carry high staff overheads.”
F-LEX paralegals are typically called upon for classic document reviews, GDPR contracts, Land Registry and Companies House filings, and, increasingly, subject access requests and Brexit documentation. It is, says Mary, quite low-level work, that often needs to be turned on and off at short notice.
“LPC students have quickly woken up to the demand,” says Mary. “They need the experience and the money, and can work around their LPC studies. And with some 25,000 law students chasing just 5,000 training contracts, we’re not only helping them gain valuable work experience but to forge a strong network that will improve their future career prospects.”
To date, approximately 60% of placements are with in-house legal teams.
F-LEX competes against the traditional placement agencies, but its clever technology platform gives it an edge.
“We’re run by experienced lawyers who understand what law firms and in-house teams need from paralegals,” says Louise. “We can place pre-vetted people very quickly – something the traditional placement agencies struggle to do.
“We also provide an increasingly amount of training that help paralegals in their placements. For example, short videos on how to use the Land Registry website and other tactical advice that the LPC does not cover. Much of this support is available to paralegals who don’t work with us as well. We try and help as many students as we possibly can.”
The F-LEX platform also provides data and insights that law firms and in-house teams need to manage spend, including paralegal timesheets, payroll and work in progress.
“One of the big changes that will shape the future of legal services is the increased use of data,” explains Mary. “Much of the talk at the moment is around AI and document automation, and that is without doubt important. But, as law firms and in-house legal departments get to grips with the data at their fingertips that will dramatically change the profession. Work flow, resourcing and fees – all of which will be shared automatically with clients – will dramatically change the way we all work.
“Transparency will be a powerful driver of change, and it is the bottom end of the mid-market – those firms saddled with large overheads without the funds to invest – that are most vulnerable.”
F-LEX’s advice for legal tech start-ups
Agility is critical for businesses, and perhaps even more so for young technology-led businesses. Lawyers are, however, rarely accused of being agile.
“As a lawyer I was broadly risk averse,” explains Mary, “wanting to have everything in place before they start a project. That is typical of the profession and that can stifle a young business. It is important to build a viable product or service with proof of concept without necessarily investing in the technology needed to deliver it. There is a lot of free stuff out there that can help young businesses get off the ground before committing major spend. It will also help when it comes to raising funds.”
The right mix of skills from the start will set a business in the right direction, which in the case of F-LEX – a former lawyer and software entrepreneur – ensured that they were profitable within the first three months and able to readjust their initial business model as the business developed.
“We initially adopted an Uber-style model of engaging our paralegals, but it quickly became apparent that this wouldn’t work for law firms,” explains Mary. “And with the changes to IR35 announced by Phillip Hammond in this Autumn’s Budget it was something of a relief. Now, all of our paralegals are employed by us.”
Mary also believes that the ability to develop the technology in-house rather than outsource to third party developers is important, giving a business the opportunity to respond quickly whilst pinpointing areas of focus.
“In-house development teams can see where the business is going and how the technology needs to respond,” explains Mary. “Third party developers can only ever respond to the brief provided. That can hold a business back.”
And finally, make decisions based on data. “Legal businesses have yet to fully harness the power of the data they hold,” says Mary. “But the growing number of legal tech businesses, such as F-LEX, is changing that. For example, we go to great lengths to gather feedback after every placement, which helps us improve our business but also helps the individual paralegals too. Data will drive transparency and decision-making, and that is good for both a legal business and clients.”
It is an exciting time to start a career in the law, concludes Mary and Louise. There are numerous opportunities and those starting out will need to work out what their individual strengths and weaknesses are. Careers are likely to be increasingly varied,
“Technology is unlikely to take lawyers jobs away,” concludes Mary, “but they will change the way we work. Law is effectively made up of relationships and that is something machines have yet to master!”