Alice Stephenson stands out among many British lawyers like art on a beige wall. A mum at 18, the tattooed entrepreneur shatters the mould of the traditionally safe, old boys club member, middle-class solicitor. The airflow created by her peers doing double takes on seeing her inked-up arm could power a wind farm.
This colourful image brings the UK legal industry’s cultural monotony into sharp relief. Neither Alice’s background nor her appearance is extreme – yet she grabs attention like a female rock star at a Masonic Lodge. In a world that increasingly values inclusivity, diversity and creativity, her uniqueness poses several challenging questions for UK Law plc.
Alice’s story is inspirational. After falling pregnant during her final year at school, she was told that her “life was over” and she left home with no money and no support. Finding herself in local authority housing, she took her A-levels in 2000 while seven-months pregnant and went off to university with Lydia, her one-year-old daughter. After completing her degree and starting a successful career in HR, she returned to higher education to study law as a single mum.
Now a married mother of three, she recalls: “I spent two years working for traditional law firms, finding my way. But I got increasingly frustrated. I realised that it didn’t matter how good I was at my job or how hard I worked there was always something pushing me down. Invisible barriers meant I wouldn’t be promoted until I reached a certain age or qualification. Ability was irrelevant.”
Alice became so disillusioned that she decided to leave law altogether but then she happened upon some freelance legal consultancy work. Buoyed by that success, three years later, in 2017, she launched Stephenson Law.
Now employing 15 lawyers and counting, Bristol, London and Amsterdam based Stephenson Law aims to be the agile, vibrant meritocracy standing out against lumbering, beige, glass-ceiling-filled corporates. With a diverse client roster, including many tech firms, Alice’s company prides itself on being straight-talking, transparent and entrepreneurial. “Our clients like us because we’re different. We’re more like a business than a law firm. The companies we work with don’t want to deal with lawyers in suits, and we don’t want to wear suits.”
But there’s more to Stephenson Law than a funky dress code. Alice and her team are fighting against the gravitational pull of the traditional UK law sector, by building an entrepreneurial, creative, diverse culture. “I believe in authenticity and in being yourself,” Alice says. “Law firms tend to stifle individuality and creativity. There’s also a culture of being afraid to make mistakes. As a result, lawyers are scared to put their necks on the line for their clients. They don’t get the freedom or support to express opinions and ideas. Fear holds everyone back. Quite a lot of a**e-covering goes on.”
By stamping out individuality and building a rigid monoculture, traditional firms risk alienating talent and creating a mousy, unfulfilled, timid workforce. Alice wants the opposite: “I want lawyers to have the confidence to speak their minds. But I also want them to learn how to withstand the criticism and rejection that inevitably comes with that freedom. That’s a recipe for better client service and a more fulfilled work and home life.”
But what about the danger of offending clients? Alice sees it as a red herring: “I’m comfortable with not being everyone’s cup of tea. Not everyone likes my tattoos, but I’m not going to cover them up to avoid offending a handful of people. Being yourself and being authentic draws people to you because they like what they see. Those who don’t can find someone else. There are enough options out there. Try to please everyone and you risk pleasing no one.”
Stephenson Law’s sparky approach has been both a commercial and a PR success. The team is growing and client inquiries are coming in thick and fast. “There’s a growing appetite for something different,” says Alice. “At big firms it’s easy to miss what else is out there. But when I speak to lawyers at some corporates, it’s clear many are looking for a new way of doing things. They’re fed up with how they are treated, the culture of fear and how backwards everything feels. Take presenteeism, for example. Judging people by how long they sit at their desks is archaic, but it still happens. I hope one of this pandemic’s silver linings is to reduce the currency of presenteeism. Not only is it a stupid way to measure performance, but it also disadvantages women because most childcare duties still fall to them.”
At last, the UK law industry has a champion who is willing to put her head above the parapet, speak her mind and battle to move this profession’s stubbornly antiquated culture forward. There are others out there fighting the same fight, but Alice’s inspiring backstory and entrepreneurial drive give her a uniquely powerful voice with which to move the dial. In the not-to-distant future let’s hope we see many more people looking to change the game – some with tattoos and some without – flying high in UK law.