Flexible work arrangements are increasingly changing the face of the legal industry. Paragon Legal is one of the companies leading that charge as an innovative legal services firm that provides highly skilled and experienced in-house counsel to corporate legal departments on an as-needed basis. For almost 15 years, law departments have partnered with Paragon to remain nimble and have flexibility to ramp up and down as their business needs and budgets demand. Paragon has built a unique model and culture that attracts the best legal talent by offering challenging legal work, competitive compensation, and flexibility.
We recently sat down with Mae O’Malley, the founder and former managing attorney of Paragon Legal, to discuss why she started the company in 2006, what has led to its success, and what differentiates it from other competitors in the market.
What inspired you to start Paragon Legal and what were your goals for the company?
The very beginnings of Paragon came completely out of my own personal necessity to find a way to continue to practice law while spending meaningful time with my growing family. At the time that I started Paragon, I was coming off of an in-house job and had just had my third child so was looking for flexible work opportunities. I took a part-time job in-house at Google and needed someone to help me with the personal clients I had gathered over the years because I didn’t want to give them up.
I posted a project-based job ad to the Burlingame moms’ club thinking this would be a good opportunity for another mom, and I ended up getting a man who was looking for flexibility in his schedule because he was an avid scuba diver and wanted to be able to take significant time off during the year. When Google got wind of the flexible working model I had come up with, they asked if I could supply them with more attorneys. From there it grew quickly — both clients and attorneys wanted in — and I had to come up with a name overnight! The model quickly proved to be a great fit for people who wanted to have a meaningful practice but have flexibility at the same time.
Were there any key decisions or growing pains early on that in hindsight helped you build a successful company?
One thing I intentionally did from the beginning that I think was extremely beneficial was that I wanted to stay very focused on doing only high-end legal work. So when we started Paragon, we hired senior attorneys with at least 10 years of experience, and most had much more than that. To this day, that high-end work continues to be our bread and butter. Other similar companies over the years have tried to expand business lines to cover all kinds of different things and I think they’ve found themselves somewhat stretched to try to do it all while keeping their core business strong. We avoided that temptation.
As we grew, our marquee client base started to ask for paralegals and contract managers, so we added those offerings, but still at a senior level, which was a very good move for us. It’s important to stay very focused in the early days on your core business and build it up to a point where it’s strong, and then start to think about expanding in other ways based on what your clients are telling you they need.
Another thing we were forced to figure out early on was how to evolve our model to balance the needs of our attorneys for steady income against the needs of the clients to only pay for what they need. We ended up coming up with a very unique model where our attorneys are guaranteed an amount of work that aligns with what our clients need. Now our attorneys have predictability in their hours and steady income, while our clients have visibility into what they’re getting and what they’re paying for.
What distinguishes Paragon from other products or other platforms on the market?
Something that distinguishes us not only from our competitors but from a lot of companies in general is that we’re very employee-centric. We started with the notion of wanting to make sure that our attorneys felt taken care of and valued, knowing that if they were treated well, they would in turn do really good work. That allowed me to run the company until I sold it with almost no investment in marketing, because our marketing was the good work of our attorneys. We thrived on repeat business and client referrals, and Paragon attorneys have always had very high levels of satisfaction because they’ve felt valued. We really wanted this to feel like a career path as opposed to a gig-economy situation.
Why did you decide to sell the company in 2018?
As is true with so many startups, you reach a point where it’s very clear that your potential to grow and to be all that you can be starts to become limited by the type of management you have in place. It’s so often the case that eventually the founder is no longer the best person to be running the company, whether due to skillset or goals or vision. Before 2018, Paragon had reached the point where it could really benefit from bringing in new management that had both the desire and the bandwidth to look at ways to scale the company.
It was a decision between being satisfied growing very organically and gradually, or investing in new management that could really test the ability of the company to expand and to potentially go national or international in a way that we very much feel the brand can sustain.
We’d had many people, including most of our competitors, try to acquire us from about 2008 on. But I never reached a point until 2018 where I felt that I was ready to sell the company, because I was still invested in it and hadn’t found the right people to pass it on to. I was very concerned about preserving the culture. We were very attorney-centric and had an all-female management team at that time, which was something that I was sensitive about.
I’d been advised by a number of friends who had sold companies that when the time was right, it would just feel right. And it did. When Trista and Jessica came along in early 2017, they were the first women who had ever approached me about buying the company. I thought they had really great ideas for a thoughtful and measured ramp up of the company, and their energy and their vision for the company felt right from the very beginning. I also thought they were well positioned to really understand the experiences and the needs of our workforce, and to continue the culture that made Paragon special.
Can you give us your thoughts on work/life balance and how Paragon plays into that?
We have all sorts of attorneys who are attracted to the Paragon model. We have both men and women who, for instance, are very involved in their local politics or are writing books. We had a movie producer/screenwriter who had a very successful run with us. Whatever it might be, you’ll find that the vast majority of human beings have interests outside of their jobs and outside of the law. Most traditional law jobs, whether in-house or at firms, are 60-plus hour a week jobs, which doesn’t allow for flexibility for either other life interests or spending meaningful time with family.
So I think that there was, and there continues to be, a huge need for models like Paragon’s that provide some small level of flexibility to attorneys who want to continue a meaningful practice but have other things outside of the law that they’re interested in. At Paragon, there’s flexibility in terms of hours, start and end times with clients, and other things that make life easier. In my mind, these are all extremely simple things to ask for, but are unfortunately very hard to attain in corporate America. You just need to build them in from the beginning as the conversation with the client starts, and everyone will be happy.
Paragon Legal has carved out a niche for itself, creating a flexible work environment for experienced attorneys, paralegals, and contract managers who not only love to do meaningful work, but also crave flexibility and balance in their professional lives. With a workforce as exceptional as the company itself, we can’t wait to see what the future holds for Paragon. Click here to find out more information about current opportunities for attorneys.
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