Do you dream of setting up your own professional services firm? We spoke to five lawyers who’ve done just that to find out just what it takes.
Lots of us dream of doing it. Few of us dare to try. Casting off the comfort blanket of employment and setting up your own business is a leap into the unknown – a bungee jump that could result in personal enrichment, fun, adrenaline and maybe a pile of treasure to grab at the end. Or if you’re less fortunate: blind panic, loud screaming and a cold dip headfirst into a river. At least that’s how it seems – like rolling a dice: six you win; any other number you lose… probably badly.
But maybe this black-and-white perception is misleading. Could it be that if we had more information and a less negative mindset, more of us would take the leap successfully?
We recently interviewed five lawyers-turned-successful-entrepreneurs to uncover their stories and gain knowledge of the journey that they took to building their own professional services business. We hope our findings help you decide whether to stay put… or jump.
1. Is the timing right?
All five of the entrepreneurs we interviewed said that timing – an overriding feeling of now or never – played a key role in their decision to launch and in their future success.
Anne Leiper and Rita Gupta met while working together at Pinto Potts and in 2008 they teamed up to launch LGFL Family Lawyers in Hampshire. “We saw our chance and went for it,” says Anne. “We had a good blend of skills and our personal circumstances were right.” Rita agrees: “Opportunity knocked. My husband had been thinking of setting up his own business but my chance came first. You either take it or you don’t and I thought: I’m going to regret this if I don’t try. I was in the fortunate position of knowing that if I failed, our personal finances would be OK. We first talked about launching LGFL on December 6 and we opened for business on June 30. The timeframe meant that we couldn’t waver. If you have too much thinking time you might not do it.”
Timing was also important for Amanda Glover, who created BakerLaw in Farnham in July 2012, after fighting her way up the law career ladder. She says: “To put things into context, I went into law late so getting my foot in the door was difficult. I went to night school, knocked on doors and found a firm willing to take me on as a legal secretary. I studied for seven years to qualify and later ended up at Shoosmiths for 14 years – 10 of which as partner.” Eventually, an opportunity for Amanda to set up her own business presented itself: “A firm had gone into administration and premises and staff became available. I’d also met someone who wanted to invest. The opportunity was there. If I’d stopped and thought about it, I probably wouldn’t have done it – it was a case of seizing the moment.”
For Daphne Robertson, founder of healthcare sector specialist DR Solicitors in Guildford, timing was more important still. A policy change in healthcare law in 2004, along with a lack of sector competition at the time, meant that the door was suddenly wide open. Daphne says: “In 2004, primary healthcare was reorganised and doctors began to work under a new government contract. I set up DR Solicitors because I felt that care providers badly needed a law firm just for them; not generalist firms with bolt-on sections. I was asked by an industry journal to present at a series of seminars on the new regulations, and it was then that I decided this was an un-missable opportunity to market a new law firm.”
2. Is your motivation powerful enough?
All five of our entrepreneurial interviewees had a burning desire to set up their own businesses, and that desire sprang from several sources. In all cases it drove them, pushing them into taking the leap of faith and allowing them to maintain momentum and resilience…
Lynn Murray set up Lynn Murray & Co in Surrey in 2001. Before that, she worked for various larger law firms. She recalls: “Early in my career I experienced a macho approach to management that felt as if it was designed to show me who was boss: things like being told to do piles of non-urgent photocopying on a Sunday. It left a bad taste.” Lynn gradually became even more disillusioned with working for large law firms. “I liked what I was doing but didn’t feel that I had a meaningful relationship with anyone. I also often felt that I was getting it in the neck if the person instructing me was getting it in the neck from their boss. There was a blame culture.” Lynn left in 1995 to have her son and went on maternity leave. “I didn’t want to go back to that culture so I set up on my own,” she says.
Amanda Glover of BakerLaw was driven by different motivations. She explains: “While working at Shoosmiths, I learned that it’s not your background or the route you take that’s important; it’s what you can bring to the table. That gave me the inspiration to believe I could go it alone. Shoosmiths was going through fundamental change when I left and there wasn’t an opportunity for me to progress. I give Shoosmiths huge credit for the skills they gave me but when you’ve got more than 100 partners trying to make a decision, progress can be difficult. Sometimes you want to be more proactive than the system allows.”
For Daphne Robertson, motivation came from identifying a great opportunity within a market niche, but that’s only part of the story. She says: “Another motivation is freedom: freedom from having a boss, freedom to pursue a goal or idea, and freedom to use my time as I see fit. However, the most compelling freedom for me is brought about by self-belief; as a business owner you can dream the impossible and dare to make a success of it.” And what creates that self-belief? “Lack of fear,” Daphne replies. “I never worry about failing because I take calculated risks, but I’m my own harshest critic and I’m fiercely competitive with myself. Also, empathy: I’m always imagining what it’s like for the person I’m talking to, whether they are a client or a colleague. Finally, hard work: I never give up trying to be better; I juggle and multitask all the time.”
Anne Leiper and Rita Gupta were driven to start their business because they thought that they could do a better job on their own. “I felt I was not being given enough room to be progressive or to best address clients’ needs,” says Rita. “I was always thinking: we should be doing it like this, but I didn’t have enough clout to be heard.” Anne has a similar view: “There was no further opportunity for progression. I wanted to move on and be able to direct things.”
3. Do you have enough flexibility to change or even ditch your business plan?
To expect the unexpected might be a cliché but there’s a good chance that your pristine business plan will soon be covered in red pen, coffee, tears and sweat. It may even need to be binned and replaced by an unexpected new model.
Rita says: “We set our business up quickly but of course there was careful, preliminary planning. But what we found is that you make your plans and projections and then something unpredictable comes along and knocks them all off the table. You’ve got to be willing to change. It’s dangerous to say ‘that’s the plan and we’re sticking to it’ when change is clearly needed. Also, no business plan can predict how individuals will react to any given situation.”
Daphne: “Our chosen industry sector has changed enormously since we started. We have always taken the view that we need to support our clients with all their legal needs, so we have needed to extend our capabilities to reflect their changing requirements. This has also led us to change our operating model. We initially built a team entirely around remote working solicitors (we were one of the first such firms in the country), but three years ago we recognized that we needed to offer different working models to attract lawyers at different stages in their careers and to better support our long term growth. Now we also employ solicitors and paralegals at our HQ in Guildford and they work alongside our consultant lawyers. This combined way of working gives us a really strong team and a solid firm culture. It’s important to embrace change where necessary and to bring people on the journey with you.”
Lynn: “When the credit crunch hit in 2008 it was like someone had switched the lights off. We went from crazily busy to nothing at all. For a while I was forced to reduce hours and we even temporarily diversified to provide virtual business support, which kept things ticking over. We have since built things back up and beyond but it’s vital to roll with the punches.”
4. Do you welcome having your ideas being challenged and do you understand your personal strengths and weaknesses?
A loud and consistent message from our interviewees is that future success depends on founders knowing their limits. Not only is it important for entrepreneurs to delegate what they’re less good at; they must also consult widely, listen hard to challenging questions and respond positively.
Anne says: “You’ve got to be willing to learn. Running a business is a huge learning curve, especially for lawyers because, in my experience, we’re not taught how to run a business in any of the training.” Rita adds: “You’ve got to be willing to stop sometimes and say: ‘No, I don’t know what I’m doing and I need to ask for help.’ You have to realise when it’s time to be inspired or guided by someone. Because of this, we’ve taken on a business mentor and he challenges us hard. It’s a good idea to have a mentor who’s not from your own industry because it makes you look at things from a different perspective.”
Amanda agrees: “Stepping back and recognising other people’s talents is important. You can’t do everything yourself. Be aware of your own abilities and limits. I’ve also taken on a business mentor over the past year because I recognise that I need challenging, but I want advice from beyond the confines of the business because you can get very blinkered.”
Daphne: “Heading up any firm can be lonely because there’s fewer people feeding back to you. Last year we hired a business coach because I felt we needed independent feedback on how we needed to change in order to grow the business even faster. It’s been a massive learning experience. Of course, you’ve also got to listen to messages coming from the market – I constantly listen to what the clients and industry leaders want and I organise the Firm accordingly. Not the other way around. You have to respond to changing demand and you can’t stand still.”
Lynn: “Your staff are your most important asset; they are more important than your clients. On my very first day at Slaughter & May I learned a vital lesson when the partner who was taking the induction training asked all of the new trainees: ‘Who is the most important person at the firm?’ ‘The managing partner’ was the favourite answer, but the partner came back with: ‘No, it’s the tea lady.’ He was trying to teach us that you can’t be arrogant and you must treat everyone you work with with respect. You are all part of a team and no one person is more important than another.”
5. Are you ready to do battle with firms with more clout and more cash?
If you set up your own firm you’ll be stepping into the ring with organisations that have bigger names, bigger budgets, bigger marketing departments… bigger everything. To survive and thrive you’ll need to relish that David versus Goliath battle and offer something your rivals can’t. It’s vital to know exactly what that something is and to sell it well.
As a true sector specialist, Daphne is clear about what her firm offers compared to her competitors: “We often compete against the ‘big boys’ but in reality, when you look at the number of specialist healthcare lawyers that larger firms employ, they’re actually smaller than us. We only work within the healthcare sector – so we’re the experts. We see big firms as generalists. We’re consistently told by clients that we speak their language while others do not.”
Lynn loves being a small independent and gets a kick out of offering what she believes to be a superior, tailored service: “It’s like the local butcher versus the supermarket; one offers high-quality products – cut exactly as you want; the other offers vacuum-packed, off-the-shelf stuff. I don’t think that clients should be fobbed off to a junior who they don’t even know either.” Lynn is also passionately non-corporate, which fuels her desire to run her own business on her own terms. She explains: “At big firms there’s often a culture of thinking that life’s just about money and corporate success. That’s not how I see it. Here you can walk the dog, put the music on and enjoy each other’s company. There’s so much more to life than the bottom line.”
Amanda uses her experience to sell her firm to clients: “Having worked in a big-firm environment I know what they do well and what they would like to improve on. At many large firms it’s the senior people who do the pitching but then they push the work down to more junior staff. The one thing I enjoy saying to my clients is: what you see is what you get; these are the people who will work with you. We are small but we offer you a tailored service. I am the founder but I see what happens on the ground and get my hands dirty.”
Anne and Rita have a similar mindset: “We are niche, specialist and focused,” says Ann. “Clients deal with either Rita or me and work doesn’t get pushed down to faceless staff. And we offer exceptional value for money because we’re so efficient. That does not mean we’re cheap but clients don’t want to pay £500 an hour for a trainee.”
If you’ve answered yes to all five questions above, there’s a chance you’re ready to take the leap and set up your own business. Just don’t expect it to be a straightforward or predictable ride. We’ll leave the final (very different) pieces of advice to our five interviewees…
Rita: “Expect the unexpected. And no matter how brilliant you think you are and how exceptional your idea is, it’s important to put your ego to one side. You need a balance between having drive and a competitive spirit and realising that other firms do things better, differently, and more innovatively. You must chase that and try to beat it, not just look inwards. Look outwards and upwards too.”
Amanda: “Be aware of your own abilities and limits. Understand who you are. Keep your business idea real and stay grounded. You can have a dream and vision but you must keep it real. If you’re grounded, no one can shake that out of you. If you’re not grounded you set yourself up to fail.”
Lynn: “Try to do the best you can every day. I don’t ever believe that I will fail, but actually what’s the worst that can happen? If I fail, so what? Also, unlike some I didn’t have a detailed plan. If you do things one step at a time, then you will never overreach. You just have to believe in yourself.”
Anne: “Hold your nerve and trust your judgement. Yes, you have to be flexible and learn, but believe in yourself too.”
Daphne: “You have to identify a target market and build a business plan around what your customers want to buy. It’s got to be a client-led service and you’ve got to work out how to deliver solutions to clients and not to present obstacles. Then you’ve got to work very, very hard.”
So now you’ve read our lawyers-turned-entrepreneurs’ stories and listened to their advice… Connected to your legs is a bungee rope. Below is a void. In one ear, two grinning Kiwis are urging you to jump. A reserved English voice speaks quietly into your other suggesting that you’d be insane to step over the edge. What are you going to do? Choose wisely…
Pictured – Lynn Murray (top left), Daphne Robertson (bottom left), Rita Gupta (centre), Amanda Glover (top right) & Anne Leiper (bottom right).
Many thanks to the Knights Legal Network (KLN), who introduced us to these five incredible ladies. The KLN is a support and referral network for law firms, created to work with, support and help address the needs and concerns of smaller and niche legal practices.
(Pictured: Emma Shotton – Partner, Knights)