Is small beautiful when it comes to family law firms? Or is it go big or go home?
Karen Dovaston joins me in this blog about what clients might expect from a sole practitioner but also the context of this in the legal market.
JO: When I first set up my law firm and went to networking events I was asked (usually by men) what my plans were for expansion. I was perplexed. They were equally confused when I answered that I had no such plans. Have you been asked this Karen?
KAREN: I have been asked this and I have had a barrister’s clerk at a well known chambers make fun of me being on my own as a sole practitioner. I think, by far and away, the most pressure has come from me. I started work in the legal world in 1988 and in the traditional small/medium sized High Street firm. The ‘standard progression’ was articles, solicitor, associate, partner with the office, books on shelves, the reception area and secretaries. Nothing wrong with that but that is not the only way. I have struggled to make peace with my decision – castigated ‘ego’ thinking about offices/offices space but one of my accountants made a comment that really struck me, although I doubt he will remember. He said it is about working out what you want from your business and work life harmony, then you have your answer. Have you had similar tussles, Jo, about either structure or type of work you do?
JO: I am so glad you said all of that! I have had the same struggles too. Because of the nature of my work I do turn a lot of work away. I could have at least one solicitor working for me and (in theory) I’d make more money. Then I could keep expanding. Then I think, no. That’s not what I want. I don’t want to supervise anyone to check on their work and their level of service. I don’t want to cover for their holiday or sickness. I want to keep it small and ensure standards. Is that important to you too Karen?
KAREN: Oh, the same. I go through regular ruminations of should I look for someone to join me/how will I feel about supervision/but if not who will have the benefit of my pearls of wisdom (ahem). What I am sure of is that I know what I am doing from the business aspect to the ‘law bit’, I only have myself to worry about, I can focus on what I want – in and out of law, I can do it ‘my way’ and I get to expand my own interests. I do my accounting, social media, making You Tube videos, business networking, the other ‘pro bono’ stuff, I can be agile and I love it. I think, actually, it would be more stressful with employees and then there comes a point where the cost of feeding the ‘beast’ outweighs the benefit of running ‘the beast’. Keeping everything at the standard that I want is very important to me too. My only concern still lingering is for the next generation. I mean, I am of a ‘certain age’ but for younger solicitors, how will they learn? How can we spread the knowledge? I know that’s something you have thought about too, isn’t it Jo?
JO: Oh yes. A pal of mine had her own sole practitioner business with paralegals becoming trainee solicitors but it was hard to manage them yet her profits weren’t great. In the end she adopted my/our model.
I also worry about the next generation so I lecture at both Brighton and Sussex University law students about non court options. Studying law is all about the cases, practicing it is too, but I really want them to know that there are ways of sorting things out and court is just one of them. I also offer work shadowing for students on Zoom – it’s a bit of a faff setting it up but many clients are very generous and agree to them ‘sitting in’ - I brief the students and debrief them for context and learning opportunities. So I am trying to do my bit. I really feel for students trying to sort out opportunities for progression in the epoch of COVID, especially those who are underprivileged, BAME, disabled or other factors that hold them back in normal circumstances.
I love what you say about being agile. I don’t have to sit in partners’ meetings or manage people (more on that later as I do have staff) in the traditional sense; I never have to write a memo. This frees me up to do other cool stuff. We both sit on The Law Society (TLS) Family Law Committee to assist our profession and assist with policy; I am currently assisting the Mediation Council and the Ministry of Justice in relation to the mediation voucher scheme. I also sit on the Equality Diversity and Inclusion committee for Resolution. I have only this week stepped down from Resolution’s DR committee as I felt it was too often difficult to sit on TLS committee too. You are active outside of normal work, what’s your passion?
KAREN: I really feel like I have a fulfilling balance. Through membership on the TLS Family Committee, I’ve got involved in stakeholder meetings with HMCTS about the court service overall and particularly the digital reform project which I really enjoy. You know I love my tech! I volunteer for the Anglian Ruskin University Law Clinic giving advice sessions with students listening in. I am an arbitrator and Vice Chair of the Forum of Family Arbitrators. I am a member of BNI and that is fantastic for business networking. The training for business skills offered via them is great. I am part of the 60 Minute Mentor project where I mentor Year 8 pupils (shout out to my lovely group). I am also the Chair of the Trust Board for a Multi Academy Trust that has six schools ‘in the family’. That is an immensely satisfying role where I have learnt lots of transferrable skills and I really feel like I can make a difference to the lives and opportunities for the children in my community. That makes me sound really pompous! I just feel that I have had the chance for a great career and vocation and I want others to have the same opportunity. I also firmly believe that everyone has a talent and it is just a question of finding it. A person might be awesome at fixing things but not so good on geography or history or book learning and that is fine. Running my own ‘show’ work wise means I get to do all of this without having to answer for my time, my reasons or the ‘business benefits’. I enjoy and embrace saying ‘yes’. That sounds all very work focussed! How do you think the model we have benefits our clients?
J: There are loads of advantages for clients. Let’s do a quick-fire of the advantages:
- I answer my own phone
- I don’t palm off work to junior colleges
KAREN: Answering the phone is a big one. I can try different tech to benefit my clients. I am seriously into my area of law and all things around it. Also, I am much happier as a person and that rolls over to clients and the people we engage with doesn’t it? I’m coming up to my third anniversary in business and the traditional gift for that is leather. Odd, I thought until I thought about the qualities of leather. Durable, protective, flexible. That’s how I feel about my business. How do you feel about yours?
JO: I am happier than anyone I know in this business (apart from you!). Much of that is down to having my own business. I can work flexibly, which my clients appreciate (they sometimes talk to me while I am walking my dogs). I do feel protective of the business and my clients. I hope it continues to durable – 10 years on, so far so good. Do you have any staff Karen? I have two people who work flexibly from home – everything is online so we can share. They fulfil all my administrative functions and make appointments/keep my diary. I think you have replaced some of those functions with tech?
KAREN: No, I don’t have any staff. Appointments can be made via my website and that is linked to my calendar. Many clients like that because they can book at a time that is convenient to them with their diary in front of them. I use online links/terminals for payment to make it easy for clients. I have also developed intake forms using Microsoft Forms to allow clients to send me the basic information before their first advice session. The case management software I use is good, linking to my accounting package with automated importing of bank accounts. I link in to the Tax Made Digital to deal with HMRC. I find using the tech for accounting really easy and timesaving to use. I type and all that for myself but I do also use voice recognition within the Microsoft Word app if I fancy it. I like Docusign for making signature of documents easier for clients. I LOVE the ebundling software – cuts the preparation of ebundles for court to a fraction of the time and clients benefit from that. I use it for preparing briefs/instructions to counsel too. I also have an integrated secure document portal that is easy for clients to use to upload documents directly to their case files. I think they like that too. What about support for you? Being a sole practitioner, effectively, is often thought to be a lonely place to be. What do you think?
JO: I have some of that tech too – I’m not a complete Luddite! But I don’t have court cases very much so some of it would be of limited value for me. As for being a lonely place, I wouldn’t have agreed with you until March 2020 when our world changed. I’ve always worked from home except when seeing clients for mediation or for legal advice or having meetings with other lawyers and our clients. But it turns out those meetings and my committee meetings were vital for my wellbeing. Also travelling for meetings counted as downtime – which didn’t happen once we went totally online.
With everything in the one dimensional space I did become lonely. To try to help myself I reached out to other practitioners, friends and family for chats on the phone which really helped. I also have a family law supervisor and mediation supervisor so their support was really helpful. It’s been a dramatic 16 months and it’s easy to forget that. I didn’t take much holiday last year and I was exhausted. I’m trying not to make the same mistake this year. How do you look after yourself?
KAREN: Professionally, I have a great group of fellow solicitors that are my ‘go to’ group for a head check. You know, we all have those days when you think you should give it all up because you know nothing and you should go and live on a rock. I send out the Bat signal to my people and they will talk me off the rock. Business wise, I have a great network from my membership of BNI. Always someone I can speak to there, which is fab. For my personal life, I am luck enough to have married my best friend – my (long suffering) husband, my mum (who comes out with some absolute crackers) and my close friends – and there are plenty of fellow solicitors that I count in the close friends group too. You know; the Venn diagram model. I finish early when I can, take afternoon Nana naps if I need to, work extra if I have to and treat myself to nice lotions and potions for the skin. Living near the seaside is a real boon too. A walk on the beach, stopping for a coffee, is enough to regenerate the most tired of souls. When I was an employed solicitor, I would make sure I have time away from the office for at least a week and at least once every three months. Sharpening the saw, as they say. So, any final words of wisdom for someone thinking of changing their professional life?
JO: Just look after yourself; working with separated couples is a difficult job. If you can’t thrive as an employed solicitor then consider our way of life. Je ne regrette rien.
KAREN: Mais oui, mais oui, Edith. Mais oui, mais oui.
Karen can be contacted at www.dovaston.co.uk or call on 0800 083 6051