When COVID-19 arrived in New Zealand and the entire country went into lockdown, it became harder for sole-practitioners to continue making connections with other lawyers. Barrister-sole Jeremy Sutton and Law Clerk Isabella Hutchison developed Ako Legal, a dedicated network for sole-practitioners and lawyers in small firms to network digitally.
Covid-19 has impacted every legal workplace and every type of legal practice in this country. But not in the same way. There are big differences depending on the size of the organisation, the type of work and of course the location.
Barrister-sole Jeremy Sutton is based in Tāmaki-Makaurau (Auckland). When Covid-19 arrived in New Zealand and the entire country went into lockdown he realised this would be a hard time for lawyers like him. Specifically, for those in sole-practise or working at small firms. Suddenly running a business, keeping up with legal practise and continuing to make connections with other lawyers was going to get a lot harder.
So, he turned to the online digital platform Slack and together with Law Clerk Isabella Hutchison developed a dedicated network for sole-practitioners and lawyers in small firms to join as paid members.
Setting up Ako Legal
“It was March 2020 when I put together some webinars for people about working from home, covering things like the types of technology they could try. This had a bigger uptake than I’d expected as I’d only invited other family lawyers I knew. But word spread and about 140 people logged in.
“It became apparent that there was a real demand from lawyers wanting to connect with each other for professional and wellbeing reasons.
“I really wanted to help create more of a level playing field in this new restricted environment for those of us working on our own or in really small firms. We didn’t have a lot of support facing this entirely new world, so I started working on an online platform.”
Fast forward to November 2021 and whilst Jeremy is unfortunately back in a lockdown in Auckland, Ako Legal is thriving. The platform provides members with a safe space to share information, ask questions, discuss recent cases and just catch-up for a chat.
There are a number of channels dedicated to different topics where members can post questions, share updates, discuss legal issues or just post an amusing photo of a furry work colleague.
Trust Law specialist Leonie Reid of Auckland’s Horrocks Hampton Lawyers joined the platform in September this year.
“It’s been really useful for me as a lawyer working in a small firm. I go in there at least once a day to connect with the community. In a way it’s like being part of a much larger law firm.”
A way to connect
Wellington based Emma Gabor set up her own practice last year. Having started her career in a large law firm and then gone in-house at New Zealand’s largest insurance company she knew striking out on her own would be challenging.
“When I decided that I wanted to become a sole-practitioner I set about building up a network of people I could turn to for support and guidance. People have been incredibly generous with their time and expertise.
“The great thing about Ako is that you can ask questions and not feel like you’re intruding or asking too much of people as by helping each other we all benefit.”
Being on your own can be a lonely place. Emma will never forget walking into her office for the first time as she was the first person to let a space in a new floor in an office building in the city.
“Setting myself up in that empty space brought home the reality of the switch I’d made. The great thing about Ako is that at times I feel as if I’m back in a large office just turning to the person next to me to ask them a question.”
Supporting digital networking
Being based in cities Leonie and Emma are used to being able to access events to help build their networks. Emma supports the Independent Practitioners Committee in Wellington, helping to organise education and networking opportunities for practitioners.
But for sole practitioners in smaller towns and rural communities the ability to connect face to face is more limited. In some ways, Covid has levelled the playing field removing that option during lockdowns.
Lockdown has presented extra challenges for Leonie, balancing home-schooling, and working from home. “Ako has been of great value through lockdown. It’s been particularly good for keeping up with the changing restrictions.
“What’s also really useful is being able to ask for other’s view on a legal issue, as well as seeing conversations about areas of practise I’m less familiar with.
“And of course, for those of us in extended lockdowns it’s been a place to share our challenges and find support.”
Jeremy says the nearly 50 members currently on the platform cover a broad range of locations and practise areas.
“What’s been particularly good for sole-practitioners in more rural areas is that they can access a range of practitioners with different specialisms on Ako. For lawyers practising in smaller areas, they often need to be across several different areas of the law so having a group of fellow practitioners on hand to ask questions of is really useful.
“Those lawyers are often inundated because they may be the only one in that area so making time to get to courses for CPD or events for networking is also more challenging. But it’s important that we all take time to look after ourselves, and connecting with others, even digitally definitely helps do that.
“For example, we had someone on the platform who had a very difficult client they were dealing with. Other members were able to suggest ways to deal with the behaviour, as well as encouragement to take action.”
Supporting lawyers to look after themselves
For Jeremy one of his core motivations for setting up Ako Legal was to help level the playing field for sole practitioners.
“I could see there was a real need for this, and it is really satisfying when people benefit from the platform. It was a challenge to set it up because there are a lot of components but I felt I had something to contribute to the profession and so I wanted to share this information and share my experiences of what I had gone through.
“I often see sole practitioners taking on far too much work. I think it’s important to be checking in with each other to ask how we’re doing.
“I specialise in divorce work so most of my clients can be pretty unhappy! It’s been good having a support network through Ako and being able to help other lawyers.”
What’s next for Ako Legal?
Having grown to just under 50 members Jeremy is keen to keep the community relatively small. Users like Leonie agree that having a tight network of regular contributors helps build trust and friendship among the users of Ako Legal.
“I have to confess that I don’t actually want the network to grow too big,” Leonie says. “I really like the intimacy of the small group. Particularly through lockdown I’ve really got to know people. I haven’t felt isolated or alone as a lawyer through this most recent lockdown.”
Isabella and Jeremy have both been working on offering more CPD on the site and webinars, some of which are open to non-members for a small fee.
Applications to join Ako Legal can be made via the website akolegal.co.nz.