In-house legal careers: from lawyers to CEOs

Sanaa Siddiqui, 14 January 2022

What are your career options as an in-house lawyer? We spoke to three lawyers who stopped practising and became founders. What skills transfer, and what advice can they offer budding entrepreneurs?

This is a chapter from issue #3 of our community-led publication, The Bundle. Download The Bundle for need-to-know insights from legal and business leaders at Pollen, Omnipresent, Liberis, and more.

We dive into the journeys made by lawyers who embarked on the entrepreneurial path to becoming CEOs, with: Mary Bonsor, CEO and co-founder of Flex Legal; Julia Salasky, CEO and co-founder of Legl; and Janvi Patel, previously chairwoman and co-founder, Halebury.

How does a role in private practice, or in-house legal, prepare you for the challenges and experiences of being an entrepreneurial leader? Navigate through our three interviews to find out.

From lawyer to CEO - Mary Bonsor, CEO, Flex Legal | From private practice to scaleup founder - Julia Salasky, CEO, Legl | From lawyer to entrepreneur - Janvi Patel, chairwoman, Halebury

From lawyer to CEO 💬

Mary Bonsor is the CEO and co-founder of Flex Legal, an online platform that helps recruit temporary paralegals and temporary lawyers.

How did you find the journey from being a lawyer to founding Flex Legal?

Slowly! I took the ‘classic lawyer’ route, and was really risk-averse with my decisions. I mulled the idea over for four years and actually identified the value of a service like Flex Legal during my time as a lawyer. I was a paralegal at Freshfields, where I found the process of hiring paralegals quite archaic.

How did you choose your co-founder, James Moore? Were there any specific traits or skillsets you were looking for?

We interviewed 30 people with tech backgrounds, and they were all promising the world. They claimed they could build an app in less than a month. James was the only one who came to the interview and said that:

  1. We were going to make mistakes along the way

  2. The app would take years to perfect

  3. He wanted to be fully involved as a co-founder

It was a refreshing approach, and one that we loved.

Are there any skills you developed during your time as a lawyer that helped you as a CEO?

I don’t think you know what skills you have when you start this journey; you learn along the way. But I did find that my role as a litigator set me up for success as a founder. As a litigator you’re constantly firing things off and juggling several cases at once - which really helps in a founder role, where you have to make quick decisions and spin several plates at once.

What advice would you give to lawyers looking to make a similar career move?

Prove your idea. Don’t look at how your concept will take flight once you have the tech in place - technology should be the last thing you implement. For example, with Flex I had a spreadsheet of paralegal names, and I had placed five paralegals before James had even joined. I had proved my idea was viable, and that made it easier to get investment.

Mary Bonsor is the CEO and co-founder of Flex Legal. Up next, you'll hear from Julia Salasky, CEO and co-founder of Legl. 

From private practice to scaleup founder 💡

Julia Salasky is the CEO and co-founder of Legl, a leading data and operations platform for law firms. 

What was the journey like from lawyer to founder of CrowdJustice and Legl?juro-effective-date-track-graph-min

Each time it’s been based on a problem I thought was worth solving. I left Linklaters to work at the UN Commission on International Trade Law. There I worked on a global project to try to make solving disputes online easier.

That really got me thinking about the underlying problem: how do we ensure more people have access to legal services? CrowdJustice, my first company, was born out of trying to answer that question.

Through the success of CrowdJustice, where we have hundreds of law firm users, I noticed a different problem: the lack of digital processes for law firms’ own business operations. And that’s how Legl, a platform that provides better digital operational tools for law firms, was born.

Are there any skills you developed during your time as a lawyer that helped you as a CEO?

The core skills that I think a startup CEO needs are around being agile, using data to make decisions, and how to grow, build and manage teams. Quite honestly, these are quite different from the skills and the part of my brain that I used to exercise as a lawyer. But there’s a better understanding in the legal industry now, around design thinking and legal software, so perhaps that’s changing.

What advice would you give to lawyers looking to make a similar career move?

I’d really push on someone’s commitment, not just to starting a business but to the passion you have for your idea. Starting a business has intense highs and lows, and is a long-term commitment.

Is this an idea you want to spend the next 10 years of your life pursuing? Is this something where you’re willing to run into a wall for? But if that doesn’t faze you, my advice would be – take the plunge. The biggest hurdle to overcome is getting started.

Julia Salasky is the CEO and co-founder of Legl. Our final interview is with Janvi Patel, formerly chairwoman and co-founder of Halebury. 

From lawyer to entrepreneur 💡

Janvi Patel was formerly the chairwoman and co-founder of Halebury, a flexible resource law firm. 

How did you find the leap from in-house lawyer to CEO and founder?

For me, moving in-house from private practice was a bigger leap than becoming a founder. At the time, it was incredibly hard to move in-house, especially as an employment lawyer. The leap from lawyer to CEO was much more gradual - it takes time to set up a business, and the idea spent time in my periphery.

juro-vs-agiloft-alternatives-character-puzzle

How did you decide on your co-founder, Denise Nurse? Were there certain traits or skillsets you were looking for?

Denise and I met on the first day at a law firm, and we became good friends over the two years of training. We both had plenty in common - from business direction, to similar mindsets and philosophies. We also realised that we didn’t have many choices in careers at the time - it seemed to be either in-house or private practice, neither of which appealed to us. It seemed like a logical jump from there to starting a business together.

How did your legal expertise help you in your role as a CEO and founder?

My legal expertise taught me how to solve problems; negotiate and adapt; collaborate; and evaluate and mitigate risk.

What advice would you give to lawyers looking to make a similar career move?

Firstly, if you ever think you don’t have the skillset to do this, you are hugely mistaken! If you’ve advised on running a business and you’ve seen how a business operates, you already have the knowledge you need.

Secondly, no-one has a playbook. As lawyers, we’re skilled at figuring things out as we go - I can tell you how I ran Halebury, but there won’t be another business running in the same way. If you feel strongly about your idea, and you’re ready to commit to it, then take the plunge. You’ll figure everything else out as you go, like most founders do.

Janvi Patel was formerly the chairwoman and co-founder of Halebury.

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Topics: Legal operations

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