An equity partner in a traditional law firm? No thank you. 

In your every day working life, it’s likely that some things frustrate the hell out of you. Maybe it’s the clunky intranet that someone was paid a fortune to build. Perhaps it’s the endless, energy-sapping meetings, which take up the time that you would rather be using to be out in the market winning new business. Or could it be the 15 signatures required for a fit-for-purpose laptop? Whatever it is, surely there’s got to be a better way?

Hold those thoughts, because that frustration is powerful. So potent in fact that you might be able to use it to create your own business – or at least use it to formulate some exciting, fresh ideas.

We have recently met two enterprising lawyers who have done just that. They harnessed their exasperation to set up a new, pioneering legal business. In so doing, they’ve torn down the traditional law firm model and restacked it to create an organisation that is driven by logic and efficiency… not politics. Their story provides inspiration and a new lens through which to scrutinise your own place of work.

Chris and Guy Setford, founders of Setfords Solicitors, are cousins, who have known each other since childhood. Natural go-getters and entrepreneurs from the start – Guy had a car-cleaning business aged 13 and Chris a cleaning job aged nine – the pair have a unique bond and an obvious chemistry that fuel the business they co-run today.

Both went into law and worked for various firms before Guy launched Setfords as a property practice in 2006. Chris joined Guy in 2009 and that’s when the magic happened and the pair took the business in a whole new direction.

The duo had often discussed the frustrations they were feeling while working for various law firms and they began to consider how they could change things for the better. “Right from the early days we were looking at how to do things differently,” Chris told us. At first they contemplated taking the equity partner route to elicit change from the top, but they soon dismissed that idea. “We quickly realised that equity partner wasn’t going to be our goal as it can actually be quite limiting. We didn’t want to wait 20 years before implementing our ideas,” said Guy. “So the only solution was to set up our own firm.” They proudly claim to be businessmen first and lawyers second. This means that all their efforts have been put into creating a new business model which beaks the mould.

We quickly realised that equity partner wasn’t going to be our goal as it can actually be quite limiting…

In 2008, Guy heard the founder of a family-focused legal practice, Woolley & Co, speak at a conference. This provided another spark. “Andrew Woolley’s concept was self-employed lawyers working remotely,” said Guy. “That model fitted in with lots of things Chris and I had been talking about. But we then thought, why limit it to family work when it could so easily be a full-service offering?”

The cousins developed their thinking and soon realised that many of the frustrations they’d experienced during their careers could be side-stepped using this model. “There was a eureka moment during the planning process when we thought wow, this is the answer,” said Chris. “And from that point on we believed 100% that it would work.”

The Setfords’ model is simple, but the way it has been honed makes it unique. In a nutshell, all of Setfords 174 lawyers are self-employed consultants with the autonomy to choose where they work, whom they work for, how they work, and what they charge. Behind them – and this is the key – sits Setfords’ support infrastructure. This is what powers the business.

More and more often, self-employed consultancy is the aim because it offers true flexibility, freedom and a good work-life balance without any office politics

The support systems revolve around an employed team of 60 who work from a central office in Guildford. This team deals with all incoming and outgoing post, marketing, admin, sales, web development, SEO and graphic design. It’s a slick and constantly improving operation. For example, the post is uploaded onto a case-management system by 9am each day and every Setfords’ lawyer can dictate letters – from anywhere in the world – knowing that they will be turned around on time.

Other support includes assistance with pitches and a sales team that generates 1,500-2,000 new clients for Setfords’ lawyers each year. Crucially too, Setfords gives its self-employed lawyers the opportunity to stay ahead of the rapidly evolving tech game. “We need to ensure that our consultants can deliver services in the ways clients want, so we have an awful lot of things already in production such as document automation and artificial intelligence systems. These are all designed to enhance what our lawyers can currently offer,” said Chris.

So how much does this all cost? “All of our self-employed lawyers earn a percentage of what they bill their clients each year,” said Chris. “The starting point is a 50:50 split but the more they bill, the more they earn. So by the time they reach a certain level, they can earn 80%.”

Demand is strong. “We receive a constant flow of applications from a wide range of lawyers, from young consultants to older partners who – for example – have been pushed out by a firm’s absurd compulsory retirement policy,” said Guy. Demand is particularly strong from young lawyers: “Back in the day, equity partnership was the ambition for so many lawyers,” Chris told us, “but more and more often, self-employed consultancy is the aim because it offers true flexibility, freedom and a good work-life balance without any office politics. This feeling particularly resonates with the millennials for whom the role of equity partner is no longer the be all and end all. Furthermore, a recent survey from The Lawyer announced that 40 per cent of lawyers now wish they hadn’t chosen a career in law. There’s a reason for that and our business and others like it provide the antidote.”

40 per cent of lawyers now wish they hadn’t chosen a career in law

Setfords also works well for women: “55% of our lawyers are female. It’s a great solution if you want the flexibility to raise children and continue to work. We have the systems to support that. We attract more women than men for all the reasons you read in the media right now.”

Setfords claim that other firms have got agile working all wrong. ‘Agile working’ is a buzz phrase across many industries, but in most cases it doesn’t live up to its name. For some firms ‘agile working’ and ‘flexible working’ are used interchangeably and quite often only mean that you are contractually allowed to start and finish work an hour early, and maybe even work from home one day a week. But, it surely can’t be truly agile, if it’s contractual!

However, there is clearly a growing demand for real agile working. So are there any downsides? Cynics might argue that the structure of a traditional firm offers greater quality control, but Chris and Guy would beg to differ.

“We monitor everything from the main hub in Guildford, including regular client surveys. And because all the post goes in and out of one location we literally see everything when the mail is signed off every afternoon. If we come across something that raises eyebrows, we will perform a full file audit. It might be nothing but we will check it out just to be sure,” Chris added.

For some firms, ‘agile working’ only means that you are contractually allowed to start and finish work an hour early. But, it surely can’t be truly agile, if it’s contractual!

Guy concluded: “Because our lawyers are self-employed, the emphasis and responsibility is on them to provide a brilliant service. If they don’t, the client won’t pay. You can’t survive as a self-employed consultant if you don’t provide a wonderful service. However, when you’re on a salary at a traditional firm, you still get your pay cheque even if you make a mistake or provide a lacklustre service. So there is a big difference. Our lawyers have a business ownership mind-set so they are naturally driven to succeed.”

In effect, Chris and Guy have turned the traditional law firm model upside down by viewing their ‘team’ not just as lawyers, but as clients. Those ‘clients’ are the duo’s lifeblood, which means that the pair are constantly fired up to improve the unique support infrastructure they offer. That, in turn, enables Setfords’ lawyers to provide an exceptional service to their own clients who are their lifeblood. It’s a virtuous circle.

Now can you imagine if your bosses treated you like a client and did everything in their power to ensure that you had the best possible tools at your disposal as if their pay cheque depended on it? Your performance at work – and that of your bosses – might just improve, don’t you think?



Chris and Guy Setford are cousins who founded Setfords law firm.