Ralph Pais, Fenwick & West partner. (S. Todd Rogers)
Ralph Pais launched FLEX by Fenwick, a staffing agency for in-house legal departments, in 2010. He chairs the technology transactions practice at Fenwick & West and has held other leadership positions at the firm, but says managing FLEX is his primary focus.
Q: It has been four and a half years since you founded FLEX by Fenwick. How’s it doing?
A: So far, so good. Our first goal was to determine if we had a viable business model; our next goal was to figure out if we could scale it. Now we want to make it a leading provider in the market for our kind of services, and we’re on track to do that. We have close to 50 lawyers on our bench and more than half of those lawyers are working at the levels they want to be working.
Q: Do Fenwick & West and FLEX by Fenwick share clients?
A: The [FLEX] clients are primarily Fenwick clients or companies that hear about the brand and reach out to us. The model is not intended to displace the law firm; it’s intended to address the need for the services that clients think are cost prohibitive at law firm rates, such as day-to-day commercial transactions. Rather than losing the day-to-day work to solo practitioners, we can offer the service at a good price and take away the stress of looking for someone new. We have this pool of lawyers, and we’ll find one that is skill-set appropriate for what you need.
Q: Has the average client profile changed over the years? If so, how?
A: Yes, at the beginning, we aimed ourselves at early stage companies—they had received their Series B financing, they maybe had a sales team and CFO in place. Now we do much more work with bigger companies that have legal departments but are looking to temporarily fill positions. For example, when a lawyer is on maternity leave or while a department is replacing a full-time hire.
Q: What’s the program’s greatest success story?
A: Innovation in law firms is not so easy. The fact that my partners were open to this new business model within the law firm environment (which could be seen as potentially cannibalistic in some respects), and that they have been consistently and widely supportive of the effort is our biggest success.
Q: How do you plan to grow the business?
A: Our greatest challenge is finding more lawyers that we think are good enough to place. Most companies we talk to want lawyers with prior in-house experience. Part of how we’ll grow FLEX is solving that problem. I think it’s possible that may require us to come up with ways to train lawyers for the in-house experience, give them the skills they’d develop in-house.
Q: How do you see the business competing with other interim staffing solutions, such as Axiom?
A: I think the single business difference is our affiliation to the law firm. If they’re Fenwick clients, we can integrate the FLEX lawyer with the law firm team. Before we send [FLEX lawyers] on an engagement, we introduce them to the Fenwick lawyers that work with that client. It also changes our mindset about how to hire. I’ve been told by clients that we are more careful about the lawyers that we allow to be on our bench. The reason that might be true is the Fenwick brand is associated with that lawyer, and [FLEX] is not our main business. I can’t do anything that’s dilutive to the brand of the law firm. I think there is a pressure on us that’s just different because of the brand.
Q: Your profile says you’re responsible for expanding the firm’s international activities. What does that mean?
A: Fenwick is not going to build a robust set of offices all over the place. Because our client base does business all over the world, my job really has been to build relationships with firms that are working on the kinds of deals or the kinds of matters that our clients might have and with firms in markets where our clients are active or could be active. Broadly speaking, I help identify and coordinate relationships with leading firms in each market where our clients are active (or are likely to be active).
Q: How will the legal industry look different 10 years from now?
A: In big law firms, hopefully there will be more women and people of color in the partnerships. I think some firms will lean toward developing innovative service offerings like FLEX and other things that address the needs of our clients. I also think that businesses like FLEX will allow individual lawyers to define new ways to practice to suit their professional ambitions and personal lifestyle choices and perhaps redefine what “success” looks like.
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