Ex-City lawyer sets up her own firm
This week we spoke to Julie Stewart, an employment lawyer who left Nabarro Nathanson at 6 years’ pqe and went on to set up her own firm, Stewart Law, in Chelmsford. We asked her why she did it, how she did it and whether she would recommend it as a good career option for those not wanting partnership in the City.
mtl: Hi Julie, tell us about your career in the City.
Julie: I trained at Freshfields and qualified into the employment, pensions and benefits department there. My husband was working in the south of England at the time and we lived outside of London. This meant that I had a very long commute, so at 18 months’ pqe I moved to a firm in Southampton where I headed up the non-contentious employment team. This was a steep learning curve and I also had an HR consultancy role there, so I learnt a huge amount.
However, not long after I started, my husband’s job situation changed which meant that we moved and I came back to the City, this time to Nabarro Nathanson. I worked at Nabarro Nathanson for 3 ½ years and was a senior member of the employment team there. Just before Christmas 2003, my husband had a serious car crash which made me take stock of my life and think about what I wanted to do with it. I knew that I didn’t want to be a partner in a City firm and that I wanted less commuting and more flexibility in the future.
I handed in my notice in January 2004, and left in April 2004. At that point I didn’t know what I was going to do – I just wanted to be at home with my husband for a while. Many of my friends didn’t want partnership in a big City firm either, but we felt short of other career development opportunities and were worried about going from the frying pan into the fire. In law, it’s often easier to stay with what you know even if you’re not 100% happy with it. Some people thought I was mad and/or brave to leave a secure job where I had prospects, but to me it wasn’t a hard decision to make as I was no longer happy there.
After leaving, I spent the first two months ploughing through a huge list of things to do that had been accumulating for years while I worked in the City, for example getting my wedding photos into albums. I applied for, and considered taking, some HR jobs as an alternative to employment law, but it didn’t seem like the right move for me. I also thought that there would be no turning back to law once I had taken the step of going into HR.
I then went on holiday to Kenya with my husband and on the first night there, in a setting of complete tranquillity, it suddenly became amazingly clear to me that I should set up my own firm. When we got back I researched what I had to do and then it took about two months to get the firm up and running and ready to trade.
mtl: What concerns did you have about taking this path?
Julie: I didn’t really have any, which was probably naïve. People thought I was very brave but I didn’t see it like that. I didn’t need to generate a huge amount initially as my husband was earning enough at the time to support us both. It would have been enough to have a couple of clients to begin with and to review the situation later.
My job at Nabarro Nathanson was pretty standalone. I had my own client base and didn’t refer to anyone else anyway save for on the occasional thing, so working by myself was nothing new. My Southampton experience was very useful as I had already had the chance to run a team within a department. Most of my former clients had my private contact details and had already been contacting me to see whether I was back at work so that they could refer things through to me. This meant I had a ready-made client base.
I worried about not having support staff, but I generally tended to do my own typing anyway, so that wasn’t a huge problem. In any event I outsource very long documents and very short letters as well as things like photocopying and proofreading.
In retrospect I should have spent more time setting up the firm, for example drafting precedents in advance. I didn’t realise how quickly the business would take off, so I found myself working very hard, while also having to draft precedents, which I couldn’t charge for. Now I spend spare time drafting and updating precedents and sometimes I have to draft them from scratch as I go. The internet is great in that there are a lot of resources that you can use to assist you with this.
mtl: What are the benefits of being a sole practitioner?
Julie: I absolutely love it. I didn’t enjoy my job at Nabarros by the end but I now know that I love the work itself, I just didn’t like the City environment that I was in and had no wish to progress in it. If work comes in and I don’t have capacity, or it is something I don’t want to do, then I can turn it away (though I obviously take on all work from existing clients). There are no office politics and I have complete control over how much I work.
My clients have come to me due to prior relationships or referrals so I haven’t had to do any marketing or advertising. I have just done my accounts and my income from the last year was 50/60% from existing clients and the rest from referrals.
My clients stay with me because they are happy with my work and my approach and that is very satisfying. I also have a lot of self-respect for what I do, which I didn’t have to anywhere near the same extent when I was in the City because I never felt valued or rewarded there. I used to think that not being told off meant that I was doing ok at work… It was only when I raised things that I wasn’t happy about that I was told how well I was doing and, to me, that wasn’t the right approach.
Law degree, Queen's College, Cambridge
LPC, College of Law, Guildford
Training Contract at Freshfields
Assistant, Moore & Blatch, Southampton
Assistant, Nabarro Nathanson
Left Nabarro Nathanson
Started to set up Stewart Law
The fact that my charge-out rate is now lower means that I can work on a wider range of issues than I could before. Senior assistants can get boxed-in due to their high rates and often do the same work day in, day out. For example, due to my Freshfields background, I always did a lot of corporate support and very little large-scale discrimination work. I have now worked on several large discrimination cases, and the variety is good for my professional development. I also get to do more employee work than you can do in the City. Working for employees gives balance, humanity and a new perspective, which I think helps me in turn in advising employers.
The money is great in that I get paid for what I actually do, either by hourly rate or fixed fees. This has opened up a whole new world for my husband and I as we have been able to do so many things that we couldn’t have done before. Now if I work long hours I get financial recognition for it. I also get much more recognition from grateful clients. I think there is a perception that City lawyers are overpaid and are only doing their jobs when they do good work – now I get thanked for it. My working relationships are more personal now and I get a real sense of satisfaction that I am achieving something together with my clients.
mtl: How do you find running a law firm from home?
Julie: There are pros and cons. I love not commuting, I get more sleep and I like not having to dress up. There is also the potential to have more breaks. However in reality it is very intensive and I don’t take many breaks. Before I had my baby I had no disruptions, and although my husband now looks after him during the day, it is of course tempting to spend time with him when I should be working. It is harder than I thought working from home with him there, particularly as it tears me apart if I hear him crying and I can’t keep running to look after him.
I employ a solicitor, an office manager and a paralegal, who also all work from home. I would like to bring them under one roof, so we are looking to buy a house with space in the garden to build an office. That way I can have the benefits of working from home, but it would be easier to delegate to my staff and I will also have more of a dividing line between home and work. For example, I now hear it if I get a fax or a call late at night and I am prone to checking my emails before bed. I have a great client base but not enough resources at the moment to make the most of it fully. An office will allow a real expansion opportunity.
mtl: Have you had any issues with billing?
Julie: I think that because my clients know that I am on my own, they are very respectful and pay me very quickly. On the whole I am paid within 10-15 days of receipt of an invoice and I have only had one problem with one particular individual. I don’t take money on account (due to the strict accounting rules that cover this), so I just bill for work that I have done. I aim to do this every month, though sometimes it slips to six weeks. Although cash flow hasn’t been a problem, it is difficult to find the time to bill when you are very busy and it takes about half a day a month to do it, plus any interim bills that I send out. I use an Excel spreadsheet to record my time as I have yet to find a modern accounting package that works for my small law firm.
mtl: How much time do you have to spend keeping up to date with the law?
Julie: I get email updates on a daily basis from about eight sources and I subscribe to several magazines and publications. That is all I need really and I think I am more up to date now than I used to be in the City, partly because I have to be, but also because I have more time without the long commute.
mtl: Is PI insurance expensive?
Julie: I was pleasantly surprised that the premium quotes (which vary depending on the excess) weren’t too bad. The mandatory £1million Law Society PI insurance (which is now double that level) cost me £1,300 in my first year, with no excess. As I know my clients so well, if there was an issue with my work, I am sure it would be raised informally at an early stage. I therefore don’t really worry about my assets being at risk.
mtl: What advice would you give senior assistants/ partners who are thinking about setting up their own practice?
Julie: I would recommend thinking about the following:
- Are you are well suited to working from home / working by yourself in an office? You have to be incredibly self-disciplined as there are many distractions around. I have found that people do not seem to respect working from home as much in that friends and neighbours will pop round because they think I am just “at home”, rather than actually working. If you aren’t the sort of person who can just get on with it then you are probably not well suited to the environment.
- What sort of personality do you have? Do you love working in a team? It can be lonely sometimes to work for and by yourself. There is also less divide from the stress and fewer interruptions in the day to relieve the stress.
- What sort of client base do you have to set you up? I only injected £500 at the start to help with cash flow. I imagine it would be a lot harder to have to market yourself from the beginning. Think about where you live and what the competition is in that area.
- Do you have good IT/WP skills, or will you want to get help with this from the start by having e.g. a PA. Can you organise your own diary or do you need help with this?
- Are you are very organised, rigorous and good at dealing with stress and time management? You can be bombarded from all sides sometimes and you have to be able to juggle clients. In a firm you can get support from colleagues and help through delegation, but as a sole practitioner the buck stops with you.
- Do you have somewhere sufficiently large and quiet at home that you are willing to sacrifice as an office?
- Childcare. I can’t see how you could possibly work from home with children there, unless they were looked after by someone else. In my opinion you couldn’t do both.
- Status. Are you motivated by the label of being a partner in a big City firm? I sometimes come up against people who look me up and see a sole practitioner in Chelmsford. They assume I will be a push-over, which is fine because it often means that you get the upper hand by taking them by surprise, but you have to work harder for people’s respect sometimes and can face disparaging attitudes.
- Meetings. Where will you meet clients and are you happy for them to come to your home?
- Level of work. Can you face doing any work that comes your way, at least initially, as nothing can be beneath you?
I am very, very busy at the moment and as I said am looking to expand. Although I would love to only work 9am-5pm, I often work from 6 or 7 am until 8pm and sometimes later and at weekends. I work very intensively and because it is literally head down all day, I am often very tired at the end of a day even when it’s a relatively short one. Clients know I work from home and that if they call I am never far from my phone, so I am permanently available to them, which can be stressful.
I am much more efficient though, particularly as I don’t have to spend time supporting junior lawyers as I did at Nabarros. I can also plan much better and take days off when I want. I have a network of other sole practitioners in the area that I call on when I go on holiday or to give them overflow work. This is invaluable and you can make contacts through the Solicitor Sole Practitioners Group and by looking at the Law Society Roll for who works on their own account in your area.
All things considered, I think that the pros of working this way massively outweigh the cons. I have absolutely no regrets about doing it and it is the best career move I have ever made.
mtl: Many thanks for your time Julie.
If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.
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