Professor Mitch Kowalski is a lawyer, speaker, international adviser on legal operations, author of two books ('The Great Legal Reformation: Notes from the Field' and 'Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century'), Fastcase 50 Innovator Award Honoree and Gowling WLG Visiting Professor in Legal Service Innovation at the University of Calgary Law School. So naturally, we were delighted to catch-up with him to discuss all things Free Range Lawyers related. Fascinated by genuine and thoughtful innovation in legal services delivery, Mitch makes an incisive and challenging interviewer! Read on for a summary of our discussion.
As a hub devoted solely to meeting the needs of law firms and law companies – rather than in-house teams – through remote working assignments, Free Range Lawyers is a unique concept in legal services. Tell me a little about how the concept grew.
Katherine: "I was fortunate to be involved in the early days of freelance lawyering in the U.K., as Co-Founder of Vario, Pinsent Masons' freelance lawyer hub. That gave me fantastic insight into what clients are looking for from a freelance lawyer. I also experienced the power of remote freelance work to shape the way a law company services its clients for the better. When I moved to Australia in 2015, I set-up my own consultancy to advise clients all over the world on their strategy, service development and sales. Four things merged to germinate an idea in my mind. First, time and time again, my law firm clients told me that one of the key inhibitors to growth was lack of access to talent. For most, without the resources themselves to set-up their own freelance service like Vario and with existing providers aimed squarely at in-house legal teams, they felt under-served and disadvantaged. Second, as I was doing most of my consulting work from Perth, away from my clients' offices, I started to understand the productivity and wellbeing benefits of working remotely. Third, I had long held the view that freelance lawyering held the potential to be more than just a response to a crisis such as a gap in the team, but instead, to provide strategic value through a blended approach to resourcing that combines a fixed and variable workforce. Fourth, while leading Vario, I had seen how transferrable quality Australian and New Zealand legal skills were in the U.K., especially in areas such as commercial contracts.
So, the idea germinated. What if I could help law firms and law companies thrive by connecting them with freelance lawyers across the globe who could work on a temporary basis when the need arose? What if firms could be more efficient by changing their resourcing model to incorporate variable and well as fixed cost resources? What if instead of addressing the symptoms of poor well-being in the profession, we could tackle one of the causes – long working hours – with a practical solution that would enable work to be resourced at an appropriate level and, if required, done ‘round-the-clock'. So Free Range Lawyers was born.
Bailey: Well, I am just here for the cake. You did promise cake didn't you Katherine? Hang on, is this is the part where we tell you about all the synergistic synergy that aligned with the blood moon at the precise time of the tax year that created the fertile ground in which this the tiny bud of an idea grew? No, seriously, what we are doing is genius in its simplicity. Two parties have a need. We have a mutually satisfying solution. Voila.
As with many good things in life, Free Range Lawyers is the result of a friendship that became a professional partnership. How did the two of you meet and decide you were going to work together?
Bailey:I recall our first conversation started at an indoor trampoline centre while our kids amused themselves on the equipment. We shared our names and then immediately started bouncing ideas off each other. We by-passed the banal chitchat and went straight into discussing what contemporary feminism can offer modern motherhood. Then we talked about books and the conversation has been going ever since. What I just love about Katherine is the fact that someone with a deep love and knowledge of history is a bravely forging ahead into the future of work and reassuring the rest of us that it is going to be ok over there on the other side of the 4th revolution. So of course, when the opportunity to work together came along it was a no-brainer.
Katherine: Our kids go to the same school, so we had plenty of time in the playground to suss each other out! When we noticed that our 'quick chats' lasted for hours rather than minutes, we realised we had quite a bit in common! For me, Bailey is that wonderful combination of a good friend and a fascinating colleague. I love hearing about her research and work. It didn't take long before we clocked-on to the fact that we should be working together.
You both bring different, but complementary skills to Free Range Lawyers. Tell me more about that.
Katherine: Yes, we chose each other carefully! I feel very fortunate to be able to partner with Bailey, who has a wealth of experience and, of course, a PhD in Psychology as well as a Masters in Counselling. She's also studying for a Masters in Applied Psychology (Organisational Psychology). I know, first hand, how important evidence-based assessments are for selecting lawyers who are most suited (both in talent and motivation) to working in the Free Range way. We're breaking new ground here, as we're focusing, not only on flexible assignments but also on working remotely, away from an office, so it's crucial to ensure that our lawyers fit working in this way.
Bailey: Same goes for me with Katherine. She was one of the pioneers of freelance lawyering in the U.K. and her work made a significant contribution to changing how lawyers' view their careers and clients' view of their options for managing legal risk. There are few people in the world with Katherine's experience of freelance legal work. It's great to be able to match my research and knowledge with Katherine's experience. We make a super-team where we bring the best of theory, evidence and experience together to create an exceptional service for our clients and Free Range Lawyers.
Starting your own business is a big leap into the unknown, however experienced you are. What drove you to set-up Free Range Lawyers?
Katherine: I love the idea of doing something that, in its own way, creates positive change. Free Range Lawyers is powerful in a commercial sense but it also has a purpose. I simply don't see the point if my for profit business isn't also for purpose. Well that...and I'd have regretted it forever if someone else had set up a similar service first! Once the idea of Free Range Lawyers germinated and took root, I just had to make it a reality.
Bailey: I have spent many hours sitting across from despairing professionals who think they are broken when actually they are victims of a broken system. An outdated system of employment that pens people into workplaces simply because that is how things have always been done. Old fashion ways of working that don't respect individual agency and ability to get tasks done without having to be physically watched and monitored. It became apparent to me that much of my work was putting a band-aid on the problem, teaching people how to tolerate their lives. For me, Free Range Lawyers represents an opportunity for these professionals to take a different path. By embracing the future of work, these people can take full advantage of everything modern technology has to offer, that overcomes the tyranny of geography and have real choice in how they craft their lives. I was sick of working with people who were making 'non-choices' and wanted to be part of something that created meaningful change and offered true choice.
What is it about the legal sector that makes you tick? Why lawyers?
Bailey: Well, I am in possession of half a law degree and am a qualified legal assistant so the law in itself is of interest to me, but what really draws me to this work is the people. Lawyers are excellent to work with in that they are motivated, intelligent and are great company – I really enjoy the quick and clever banter that most are capable of! It bothers me to see highly intelligent, successful people struggle with issues around mental health and well-being and to feel like this is just 'part and parcel' of the profession. It doesn't need to be that way. I am also very pro-family and I see the destruction long, gruelling working hours causes for families and relationships and I want to be part of the solution.
Katherine: I've worked within the legal sector for 20 years now, so I must love it! During that time, I have met some wonderful individuals and many of them have become friends. So, there's that side of it. Also, there’s so much scope for change and progress. I think as a sector our innovation journey is just getting started. Legal services is an exciting place to be.
And what about that name? 'Free Range Lawyers' sure is a statement! Tell me more about what the name means to you.
Katherine: It's certainly different! The name came to me suddenly and then I couldn't let it go. I road-tested it with lots of people but, if I’m being honest, I wouldn't have listened to the detractors anyway! It quickly came to embody everything I am trying to achieve with this business, so I would have found it hard to let go. Fortunately, the feedback was good. What does the name mean to me? Freedom, obviously. Movement. Flexibility. Variety. Space. Scope. Health. Choice.
Bailey: I just wanted the chance to prance around and have some photos taken, so 'Free Range Lawyers' sounded right up my alley. No, seriously, a few years ago Katherine told me about her idea and what she would call the business and my first reaction was 'well, of course it would be called that. How perfect!' More than anything, it is a great name for opening up discussion around what we do and what we offer that is different.
Clearly words are important to you. There aren't many businesses that have their own lexicon on the web! Why have you chosen to use words such as 'distributed' to describe Free Range Lawyers?
Bailey: We're doing something new and different here: combining freelancing with work that isn't geographically constrained. So, it's not surprising that the words we need aren't established yet.
Katherine: Absolutely agree. Take 'remote' for example. It has become common parlance for working away from the office but can also have negative connotations of isolation, distance and obscurity. What are our Free Range Lawyers remote from? Not from their families, friends and communities, that's for sure. Using the word 'remote' still denotes a geographical lynchpin. By using 'distributed' as well as 'remote', we're challenging the assumption that there has to be a defined 'place'. What matters is the results our Free Range Lawyers produce, not where they produce them.