City, Solicitor, Private Client, London
Career Change Story
I left my City firm with 3 others in 2002 to found our new firm. The four of us had been friends that drank together in a bar near to the office. We were becoming increasingly disenchanted with the way that our City firm was being run. We began as five partners (one of the four of us that I mention wanted to bring one other person to help with his department), three secretaries, a practice manager and a probate / trusts specialist (ie a non-solicitor but who knows more about her work than any of the rest of us). We are now seven partners and about 35 people in all. We have a family law department, a private client department and a department specialising in litigation about trusts, probate and general private client matters.
It was a contentious move and we are prohibited from talking about it by confidentiality covenants!
Because in the end we left quite quickly, it was a struggle making the move: even the simplest things like organising a business phone line and franking machine seemed to take days. We started in two rooms in Fleet Street that a friend of mine let to us. It was really hard work and a frightening but exciting time with lots of expense and a fear of the unknown. We often say we would not have the stomach to do it twice but once you start something like that I think it obsessively drives you along. There was a huge relief at getting out of our old firm. It felt like leaving school.
Our new senior partner to be observed that law firm management echoed the government of the day. He was right. Withers and other firms were in that era being driven by an almost Blairite obsession with image and branding. There was a lack of financial care and a lazy belief that to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on image was an investment in the future. Support departments are often an industry within an industry I t think and yet few senior people seem to notice the contempt in which those in business development and human resources hold the professional staff. They see that people with no more talent than themselves have fallen into a position that encourages them to behave like little lords and ladies and be paid accordingly. In turn the two major support departments in most firms (HR and BD) will habitually work against the system and are essentially parasitical. Solicitors are generally busy, bad managers and socially unable to speak plainly or make difficult business decisions: worse still, the few that are good leaders tend to be talented generally and so far too busy looking after clients to be concerned with management. The few partners who do involve themselves in management often have little or diminishing fee earning work and lose touch with what it is like to have to run a practice: but nor are they trained or born entrepreneurs, marketers or human resources experts, so they delegate important decisions about recruitment policy and budgets to others (with a very different agenda and no profit share) which often simply results in rapid expansion of staff who earn no fees, and a consequent decline in profit. It is a chronically bad business model that has arguably survived only on national and international prosperity and monumental charge out rates. It will be interesting to see what happens to the industry in the coming years. I think time based charging at high rates is already on the decline.
What also struck me as a junior lawyer was how like school the large law firms were. There are cliques and bullies, unexplained vanities, and most extraordinary of all an overwhelming sense that to be important in a London law firm is to be important and known in the world. Withers was a place that tried even to create a branded solicitor. There was no belief that just as clients are all different and will want different things, it might pay to have different sorts of people to offer to advise them. One of the reasons that I became a solicitor and not a barrister was my terrible phobia of speaking in public. I hope I was OK at other things, but for me to make a presentation was not just a weakness, it was an embedded fear. If I had to speak for two minutes I might waste hours preparing and longer worrying. Yet those in power at my old firm would insist, like power-crazed prefects, that this was a key skill and there was no choice but to do it. If I wanted to be a partner, I was told, it as simply a bridge that must be crossed, no matter that it helped nobody, would never draw in work, and caused me considerable distress. I never understood the point.
When the two of us that were the younger partners were trying to persuade the two older ones that it was a good thing to get away from our old firm, I remember one of them saying that my parents would be disappointed that I would never then be a partner there. The idea that my parents had even heard of that firm except as a place that I worked was objectively risible and yet wholly typical of the London law firm culture. One sometimes sees people in hotels abroad announcing to other English people that they have met that they are a partner in Slaughter & May, Freshfield etc. Then they are surprised when they get a blank look in return followed by an expression of terror that it is a solicitors firm and they are going to hear about it over dinner.
Career Change Reflections
It is just as much work (and often more) to run a firm of one's own as to work for a larger one. The point for me is that the energy is better directed: we don't mind too much that our notepaper is probably sending out a sinister subliminal message, or that we do not boast offices all over the world and a glib trifold for everything that might ever happen to you. We have one or two short internal meetings per month. The firm looks outwards at its clients and its work quality, and inwards at the people that we employ. The third factor of the firm and its image is not there. We still only have one (admittedly amazing and rather stretched) practice manager, although she now has an assistant. She is one of us, and not part of a department within, and certainly it feels as if she is on our side. Our employees are individuals with different strengths and I hope that we encourage the good and where occasionally it is missing, we focus on where it is present and do not pause to hunt and hassle, but find it elsewhere. It is obviously very rewarding to have established a firm that seems so far to be a success. It feels like a happy place and plainly that is the most important thing of all. We try to be lean and mean with low overheads and charge out rates. Profits seem healthy and so far the partners' aim to keep the management structure simple and low-maintenance seems to have worked.
I am conscious of more negatives to say about big firms than positives about the new model but I think we wanted to keep it simple and so it takes few words to explain the benefits.