Ontra’s VP of Legal Partnerships Sara Eng spent nearly a decade in lawyer recruitment and management, and today oversees a growing team dedicated to ensuring the company’s global network of lawyers find value and security in partnering their private practices with Ontra.
On the heels of the 2008 financial crisis, Eng unexpectedly found herself at Paul Hastings LLC and quickly realized she had a knack for understanding and communicating with attorneys. Within a few years was overseeing the firm’s global recruiting operations.
The work soon became about far more than hiring.
“It can be very difficult to drive your legal career forward at a law firm. Your entire trajectory can depend on who you work with, what experience you get, and what the market is doing,” Eng said. She soon became passionate about helping the firm’s lawyers chart the right course for their careers.
Today, she takes that further by helping Ontra’s hundreds of lawyer partners build independent practices while maintaining the flexibility to also pursue personal interests. We sat down with Eng, who joined Ontra in 2017, to learn how she became the “lawyer whisperer” and helps the company’s vast and varied legal network live the lives they want while still practicing at the highest levels.
How did you come to join Ontra?
A good friend of mine who was a lawyer at Paul Hastings happened to be surfing buddies with one of our first employees, Miles Chan. After meeting Miles, I had coffee with the founders and what immediately spoke to me was their laser focus on the staggering level of inefficiency in how legal services are priced and delivered. Ontra was built to close that gap, which I saw firsthand for the last 10 years.
At the same time, I remembered the stress that many lawyers at large firms live with on a daily basis. There was a revolving door of unhappy, often sobbing attorneys who were seriously considering leaving practice as their professional responsibilities increasingly crowded out nearly every aspect of normal life.
It was [COO] Ben Levi, who started the company after spending several years at Kirkland & Ellis, who convinced me to join. He had such a humane and thoughtful approach to how he wanted us to partner with lawyers, to be a resource for them to find a way back to their humanity or help them accomplish whatever it was they wanted to achieve. I wanted to be part of that.
Can you tell us a bit about the lawyers on the network?
We are a place where lawyers decide their workload and have the freedom to pursue other interests and passion projects. As a result, our network is a diverse group of talented individuals with interesting hobbies and memorable personalities. Case in point: I keep a marble statue on my desk that was sculpted by one of our lawyers in Italy. I follow another lawyer on Instagram who is building a permaculture farm in Portugal. We have startup founders in retail, fashion, healthcare, affordable housing, as well as multiple successful authors. A large number of lawyers joined because they are caretakers and weren’t able to provide their dependents the attention they needed because of the billable hour demands at their former law firms. Their commitment to serving others over themselves is inspiring.
Our lawyers have an average of 10 years of experience, primarily in a Biglaw setting. However, we’ve found that the lawyers who understand the customers’ needs are the ones who achieve the greatest results. Being client-service-oriented, responsive, professional, and focused on the details outweighs anything you can find on a resume.
How does Ontra support its lawyer partners, and how will that support grow in the future?
The two main things we provide are business development and administrative support. These are the two primary hurdles for lawyers looking to stand up their own practices. It’s incredibly difficult, especially for lawyers who reside outside of the major legal markets, to go out and prospect business. As a solo practitioner, it’s impossible to knock on the door of a global asset manager and bid for their business. There’s a labor-intensive RFP process. You’re competing with very large, very prestigious firms, you’d need to set up e-billing and navigate complex collection processes, and establish information security processes and protocols. No one person is going to be able to do that. We have dedicated Sales, Account Management, IT/Security, and Finance teams to help unlock elite client work for our lawyers.
All the lawyers need to do is pick their client engagements, then negotiate and finalize the submitted contracts according to guidelines set by in-house counsel. With us, independent lawyers can scale up, and continue to work with very large, complex, global enterprises without having to scale administrative functions around the business.
Looking to the future, our Product, Account Management, and Legal Partnerships teams are collaborating to give our lawyer partners a unique competitive advantage. By designing an immersive, in-app environment that expedites the contract review process by several orders of magnitude and unlocks valuable contract insights, our lawyer network can provide their clients a level of speed and quality that no law firm or other boutique provider can offer.
It’s also important to mention that the Legal Partnerships team is here as a resource for our lawyer partners to ensure they have everything they need day-to-day and long-term. We started this year as a team of two. We’re now seven and looking to more than double by the end of the year. We’re investing because we want our lawyers to continue to feel comfortable coming to talk to us about what they value most: time with their families and friends, a specific revenue or growth goal, or an area of practice where they’re looking to specialize. We’re committed to helping them think about how they want to build their businesses over time and to provide ongoing support.
You’ve also done a lot of work thinking and writing about the diversity and inclusion (D&I) issues in the legal industry and how alternative legal service providers like Ontra help address that problem. Can you tell us more?
I started my career in legal D&I and saw firsthand how much the legal industry spends to improve diversity with very modest or even nonexistent results. In the United States, people of color account for only 18 percent of total lawyers at law firms, women account for 37 percent, and LGBT+ attorneys account for less than 3 percent, according to a 2020 report from the National Association for Law Placement.
The reason behind these numbers can likely be attributed to the rigid, immovable structures of the traditional law firm model. Research shows how law firm infrastructure, like hiring practices, work allocation systems, billable hours, and partnership metrics, are all impacted by implicit bias. This leads to more insidious challenges to overcome, like lack of diversity at the leadership and management level where the real change needs to be made to shift law firm culture. Plus there are additional barriers for women in particular, including the workaholic norms at law firms, a lack of flexibility, and the gender pay gap.
At Ontra, we’ve been able to attract, retain, and support a diverse group of legal partners in our global network thanks to our unique structure. We blind hire all lawyers in our network and propose lawyers to clients with identifying information removed. Our fixed compensation structure rewards efficiency, tying our lawyers’ earning potential directly to the amount of work completed. Our work allocation is equitable and is based on lawyer availability, not subjective measures. Our mentorship program helps small business owners find colleagues within the network to support their practices and build community. Most importantly, our completely remote model provides our attorney network with the freedom and flexibility to have a life outside of an office.
Though it might not be feasible for all legal organizations to implement the same systems, our numbers show that these methods work. Fifty percent of the attorneys in our network are women (38 percent more than the number of partners at US law firms), 11 percent are LGBT+ (three times greater than the number of partners at US law firms), and 36 percent are people of color (twice the number of partners of color at US law firms). We’re proud of these accomplishments and hope that we can help legal companies of all shapes and sizes implement some of those best practices to drive widespread change to the profession.