Starting your own law firm
Motivations for starting a firm
“In 2014, I had my first child,” shares Rachael Gent, managing director and solicitor at Gent Law. “When I returned from maternity leave, my previous employer broadened my role to encompass the website, marketing, sales and recruiting.
“This gave me a taste of running a law firm – it made me even braver about starting my own practice!
“However, I wasn’t quite ready, so I decided to move to a smaller law firm where I could put my stamp on things. This was an eye-opening experience.
“Suddenly, things I’d assumed ran like a well-oiled machine didn’t exist. It showed me that every legal practice is different.
“There are many things you take for granted, and there are set processes and tools out there that can make your life easier, as long as you know what you need.
“I was chatting with an estate agent friend over coffee. We were on board with working together and quickly acknowledged we were on to a viable business opportunity worth exploring – a gap in the market for a different type of offering in our area.
“The two of us became business partners. The experience gained at my earlier employers gave me the knowledge and confidence to apply my learnings and do it for myself. Gent Law was born and the rest is history.”
Amy Roberts, director of Trafalgar Fiduciary Services, came to the same conclusion: “Working in large law firms demands tasks being done in a certain way.
“Plus, there’s red tape tying everything up. It’s wearing. I also felt as if clients just weren’t receiving good value and I had absolutely no control over this situation.
“On top of this, with two children, I wanted more flexibility with my workload and saw starting my own practice as a solution that worked for me.”
Dealing with challenges
The most difficult part for Rachael was submitting for Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) approval – “especially as we’re an alternative business structure”.
“Regulatory approval took around 12 months. We used professional consultants to help us secure SRA accreditation, as well as compile policies and compliance documents, which I would definitely recommend.
“We used the 12 months to really think about what we wanted, find office premises, secure professional indemnity insurance, and put our infrastructure in place.
“It was a delirious and surreal moment when we realised our gamble had paid off and our law firm could open its doors. We were chuffed to be fully in business at long last.”
“Gent Law was only a few months old when COVID-19 and lockdown took us by storm. We only had 40 clients on our books,” Rachael explains.
“We were unsure how we’d cope. To say it caused me sleepless nights is an understatement. We were sitting ducks waiting for the market to reopen.
“In hindsight, it made us refocus on the things that normally get lost when you first start up – such as marketing, office procedures and recruitment.”
“We spent the downtime effectively so once the stamp duty holiday was in place and restrictions were lifted, we were ready.”
Amy found herself in a very different situation. “A large proportion of our caseload comprises wills. Predictably, uptake increased,” she describes.
“I knew we were in uncharted waters when I was suddenly offering drive-through will signing to remain COVID-19 compliant! It showed me that people are adaptable to change and, more importantly, reminded me why I’d chosen to start my own law firm.
“By that time, we had a third child in the mix. Having to home-school and care for the children was not easy, but it helped that I had the flexibility to make my own hours.
“I was guilty of sending emails late at night after the kids had gone to sleep, but at least I wasn’t missing out on precious moments with them. I think I’m better with juggling work and family life now the worst of COVID-19 is over.
“Ultimately, you have to acknowledge there are only so many hours in the day, and you can’t bill them all.”
Finding the right software and service support
In the beginning, Amy was “using Excel spreadsheets to log everything, from time records to feed into bills and financial transactions to control my client account”.
“I was spending too much time trying to make this admin-heavy process work, when I really needed something slicker that would work for my firm.
“Looking back, I wish I’d chosen a software solution from the get-go. But, at the time, I needed to know I would have the income stream to support it.
“I needed the business to operate for a while to identify what system I really needed. I wanted a supplier that had the legal expertise, offered quality software and was local.
“Not only did Quill tick all the right boxes, but the cloud-based system worked effortlessly with my existing IT systems.
“Trafalgar went live with Quill’s software in December 2021, a month earlier than scheduled. The team went all out to achieve an earlier conversion by transferring Excel data and giving ‘front-end’ training to myself and my assistant.
“This helped us immensely when we were undertaking month-end and end-of-quarter accounting. I’m sure it will make year-end accounts incorporating VAT submission less of a headache too.
“We use the software to record time, set up matters, invoice clients and extract reporting insights. All the management information is available at the click of a button. There’s simply no comparison to Excel.
“All of Quill’s employees are friendly and I love that their head office in Manchester is just a stone’s throw from my Southport office.
“From demonstration to negotiation to migration to training to go-live, I’ve been really impressed with Quill’s hands-on approach. Our team is navigating the software well, easily creating matters and our relationship with Quill staff is as strong as ever.
“We also signed on to have Quill manage our legal cashiering. It’s another area of my business that I wouldn’t trust just anybody with. I like that my legal cashier is seeing everything I’m seeing in the same system and it saves me hours each week.”
Rachael has been using Quill’s software “since the very beginning”.
“While big corporates have the luxuries of an in-house IT team and on-premise servers, we saved on costs and maintenance by opting for Quill’s cloud-based solution,” she explains.
“We chose to use a case management provider for our conveyancing specific needs, which integrates seamlessly with Quill’s legal accounts software.
“I knew from my experience at larger firms that a proper case and practice management system would be a key tool that I’d need to invest in, but I was glad to have the people at Quill backing me.
“They’ve helped dozens of budding entrepreneurs like myself get up and running quickly, and they are reasonable and realistic on price. We’ve been pleased with their support and partnership ever since.”
“If you’re considering starting your own law firm, brace yourself!” says Rachael.
“It’s worth the reward but you’ll have to put the work in. You’re responsible for others and it’s a weight on your shoulders.
“Building client relationships is key, as that’s what grows your business. It’s not just about being a qualified solicitor. You wear a lot of hats and must be comfortable with that.
“Relationships are so important, as is accessing consultancy support to bridge your skills gaps. Plus choosing the right banking provider, as you need someone you can call for ad-hoc support and rely on to ensure your client accounts are accurate at all times.
“When planning your finances, budget what you think with more on top. And plan comprehensively and proactively. Your business plan should cover everything and be a live, ever-evolving document.
“Invest in the right software for you – choose wisely and consider systems that are hosted and affordable.”
Amy has similar advice: “have courage and do it, but know your market, know your pricing and know what will work. Otherwise, too much money will disappear down the drain.”
“You’ll come to rely on your professional relationships and it’s worth building relationships with key suppliers in the market, so invest in these.”
I want to learn more
This interview is adapted from Quill’s webinar on starting a law firm: lessons to survive your first year.
There’s also a 15-step guide to starting your own law firm for even more powerful lessons learned from businesspeople behind successful practices.