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When I started my law firm back in 2004 I really didn’t have a clue about how to run a business let alone a law firm. So, I did what I usually do when I want to learn how to do something – I found a book to read. It was and remains the Law Society’s recommended text book Setting up and Managing a Law Practice by Martin Smith.
Had I known then what I know now I would not have followed the central advice in this book – which was to take whatever work you can get. However, at the time I really didn’t know much about marketing, or positioning, and the importance of being niche.
So my first year in business I did as the book suggested and became a general practitioner, taking whatever work came my way. I’m not sure if later editions of the book have updated this advice. I certainly hope so, but if you are a solicitor intending to start your own business, (such as to practice as the new breed of a freelance solicitor which the Solicitors Regulation Authority will be permitting from 25 November 2019,) then I strongly suggest NOT following this advice. I quickly realised that it was a bad idea to be a jack of all trades. It was just too time consuming as I was having to grapple with subjects like conveyancing, probate, landlord, and tenant, which I hadn’t touched in years. That was the work people needed when I opened the shop! Many of my clients were friends and family or were searching for a local firm.
I was forever investing time and resources into learning how to do different types of work. Although I had covered the subjects I was practising in my training contract years before, the law had moved on. I have high standards and wanted to do a good job – hence lots to learn. I also didn’t want to be negligent! Unsurprisingly, this approach of taking whatever work you can get wasn’t very profitable either.
While many businesses, such as digital marketing agencies, operate on this model today, offering a vast range of skills under one roof, I doubt it is viable – you have to specialise. Certainly in the legal industry given the serious implications that result when you don’t take the right actions as a lawyer. It’s essential to avoid being a generalist nowadays. Within a year I changed the business completely.
The reason I set up my own law practice was due to the lack of flexible work options when I wanted to return to work after more than 10 years away from full-time working. I had worked part-time, and studied during those 10 years, but only worked sporadically.
Today there may be more flexibility in the work place, but there will be other drivers motivating people to set up on their own nowadays. For one thing, the trend in society is towards self-employment and entrepreneurship. For many people, it’s the ultimate dream to generate their own income, and not be beholden to an employer.
Solicitors and other professionals are similarly choosing to set up on their own. Many people do not want the corporate lifestyle and all that it entails. Currently, solicitors choosing self-employment tend to act as consultants to dispersed law firms like Keystone or Seddons. These firms take care of professional indemnity insurance and regulatory compliance, in return for a cut of the fees. It’s likely that the new regulations will motivate some of these solicitors to cut out the middle man so to speak and work directly for their clients, so they can keep all the fees they receive.
As such it’s likely there will be a huge take up of self-employment in the legal profession shortly.
In future posts, I will look at the regulations impacting the legal industry to assess how they distinguish between solicitors setting up law firms, or setting up non-regulated businesses that provide legal services, or setting up as freelance lawyers. These forms of practice are all conceptually quite different.
When I first looked to return to work in the mid-90s, the possibilities were much more limited than they are today, both in terms of the working arrangements firms offered lawyers, and also in the ways in which one could choose to deliver legal services.
One reason I took time away from the workplace was that I had no family living nearby, and didn’t find a childcare solution I felt comfortable with when I initially returned to work part time at Reuters after the birth of my first daughter. So I decided to not carry on working. Reuters was a fantastic employer and I could have had as much flexibility as I wanted had I stayed there. But at the time I just didn’t want to spend any time away from my daughter who was still under the age of one. I volunteered for redundancy from Reuters and received such an excellent severance package, which included share options, and keeping my company car, that I didn’t actually NEED to work while my daughters were young.
Little did I know how difficult it would be to get back into a similar job to the one I had at Reuters 10 years later when I was ready to return to work full-time.
Law firm employers, when I returned to work the first time around in the mid-90s, didn’t offer the flexibility that I needed. Ideally, I would have liked to work till 3pm, leave to collect the children from school (for reasons I won’t bore you with, the school run was very difficult to outsource), and then, if necessary, I could have carried on working later in the evening at home once my husband was back from work. However, this was not an option. At the time my youngest daughter was still just 3.
So, instead of getting a job, I ended up doing consultancy projects, mainly to keep a hand in as I knew I wanted a career long term. For a while, I even worked in a professional support role at Eversheds, an international law firm. The job was part time, but it was hardly flexible. I didn't want to be a support lawyer anyway so after a couple of years back in the work place, I gave it all up to just concentrate on raising my two daughters. In giving up work I probably made myself totally unemployable because I no longer even had the distinction of being fresh out of an LLM masters’ degree course later when I began to look in earnest for a job – that was in the early 2000’s.
Setting up my own firm seemed the only way forward by 2004. It offered flexibility to be around for my daughters who were by then 10 and 12. But I was completely clueless about what would be involved in running a law firm. It was very daunting.
After that first year as a general practice, I relaunched as an Intellectual Property niche firm in 2005.
I had had experience of doing commercial and intellectual property law at Reuters before I had children but that was as an inhouse lawyer not in a law firm. I also had a Masters’ degree in Intellectual Property law, and a strong interest in the subject. I just had no belief that business clients existed who would need IP services that I could deliver.
My legal experience in a blue-chip company like Reuters did make me too specialised, and I lacked insight into the market for intellectual property for small businesses to know how to offer intellectual property services to small business. That combined with my lack of confidence in my own ability to attract work from corporate clients, (which is quite typical of what mums who have been away from the workplace for a few years suffer from), had led to my setting up as a general practice law firm rather than a niche intellectual property and commercial law firm, and now I needed to find clients who wanted intellectual property services.
Having my own business has been a massive learning curve. Nobody is born an entrepreneur. Some people are just exposed to entrepreneurship much earlier in their lives so that they learn a lot about entrepreneurship at a younger age.
I’ve had to learn about business gradually by being in business and being interested in business.
My relaunch as an Intellectual Property law firm meant I had to turn down the general practice work that was coming my way while I waited to get Intellectual Property clients. I was winding up the cases I had, so on no account would I have been able to develop the IP practice if I had kept taking on more general practice work.
So here’s the learning: when you decide to focus on a particular niche, you have to be willing to turn down other work. By refusing conveyancing work even though it was there for the taking, I gave myself the time and space to develop the new line of business I wanted. The rest is history as they say because I built the firm from the ground up to what it is today. The work just comes in, and I have people within the business who deal with different aspects of it, so that I have a lot of time and freedom to do the things I enjoy, such as writing and developing new product lines.
Reading business books, such as Sahar Hashemi's 'Anyone Can Do It’ inspired and taught me a lot about running a business along the way. I have also expanded my business skills by attending courses, such as the Key Person Of Influence program. My motivation for joining the program was purely to learn about business rather than to become influential. It was simply one of the few courses around at the time which offered help to write a book (something I wanted to do) and to learn how to productise services so as to avoid working in a pure time for money business model.
The influence was hardly my objective because I was already doing the elements of the course that the course organisers consider to be necessary to become influential. For example, I was publishing content as a blogger since 2007-2008, and a guest blogger on sites such as Solo IP. I had contributed articles to a number of publications, and taught at law related events and conferences. From a profile point of view, I was thoroughly plugged into legal networks such as on Twitter. The only element of influence that I lacked then and still lack today is partnerships. But that may have more to do with the regulatory climate that restrict solicitors than anything else.
The point I want to stress is that if you’re planning on being self-employed it’s essential to develop your business skills and to allocate time to work ON your business rather than purely IN it. Attendance at courses can provide this opportunity, if the courses are well structured around such objectives.
In the past 6 or 7 years, I have moved almost exclusively in entrepreneur circles, but prior to that I used to organise meetings for sole practitioners and small law firms, and I also arranged a number of tweetups. I now intend to focus on the legal industry again as I’m developing a product offering for them, as I’ll discuss in future blog posts and in my forthcoming book. Watch this space.
In the process of developing Azrights, I did become thoroughly employable judging by the approaches I frequently had to join existing firms or to merge my firm with theirs. So, if you’re concerned that starting your own venture will damage your career opportunities, think again. It’s likely that developing entrepreneurial skills will considerably enhance your opportunities.
I never responded positively to merger or similar requests partly because I feared such talks would take up a lot of my time and end nowhere. However, it was also because I’ve always got plans on the boil, ideas I’m working on. My plans change over the years, but I always have them.
Over the last few years, I’ve adapted the business to fit my changing needs – which involved moving out of London and using contractors instead of full-time paid employees in many roles. I would hate to give up my independence to join a larger firm. That would just restrict my freedom, introducing a layer of politics I am not suited to. Also, I suspect many of my ideas would be rejected out of hand by the other partners if I were to be part of a larger firm. Whereas I have complete freedom and control to introduce my ideas at Azrights.
So, I intend that Azrights will remain fully independent for the foreseeable future.
If you’re a lawyer planning on starting or changing your law firm model, then do come along to one of the events I’ll be organising around the launch of my new book. Register your interest here.
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