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What it’s like to start your own law firm?

01 September 2017 - By Kate Geenty

The idea of starting her own business percolated for about two years before Helen Mackay decided to make the move out on her own. “I’ve always been an in-house lawyer, so the idea of opening a traditional law firm never appealed to me. But the emerging demand for an alternative law firm or hybrid legal services provider fitted what I wanted to do next.”

A push button ignition

That alternative law firm is Juno Legal, which started up in April in Wellington. Ms Mackay is the director and has eight experienced in-house lawyers working with her or about to come on board. Juno provides seconded in-house counsel into companies that need additional resource whether temporarily, such as for parental leave cover, for projects or governance work, or ongoing on a flexible basis. It also does consulting work on the strategy and performance of in-house legal teams and consults with legal teams and law firms on how they can use technology to help their lawyers be more effective and efficient.

The idea came about partly due to Ms Mackay’s previous role heading up ILANZ, the In-house Lawyers section of the New Zealand Law Society.

“Over the past few years, I had a number of general counsel approach me who needed flexible legal resource and a lot of lawyers who wanted flexible opportunities. Also, more legal teams want to professionalise their service delivery model with the business as most face overwhelming workloads unless they put in place clear boundaries.

“There was a gap in the market and both the supply and demand sides were there. This is a proven international model and one that complements the more traditional law firm model. Established firms are being welcoming and supportive which we really appreciate.”

A lot of market research went on before Ms Mackay opened Juno’s doors. “I spoke to more than 50 general counsel, chief legal advisors and CEOs, including in similar law firms and businesses in Australia and the UK, to get a really good idea of what worked best for their clients and lessons they learned.

“Our drivers are to lift capability across the in-house legal profession and to create flexible pathways for lawyers so we are very careful to keep these at the forefront. We are clear about the value we bring and ensure we recruit only the best talent from the in-house legal profession to be Juno lawyers.”

Ms Mackay has a business degree as well as a law degree, which she says has been helpful in the process of starting her own business. She deliberately operates with a lean start-up mindset rather than a traditional law firm approach.

“I’ve been going to business accelerator courses at Biz Dojo in Wellington, I’ve met with people at Creative HQ and the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency, and I have a business strategy coach on board. We have designed sound systems from the bottom up and our legal technologist, Matt, has ensured we use technology in smart and disciplined ways, just as he helps our clients to. We encourage collaboration throughout the in-house legal profession and try to connect different clients with similar challenges to learn from each other.”

In terms of coming up with the business name and branding, she canvased friends, family and colleagues for their opinions. She says it’s easy to get bogged down and believes it’s important to maintain momentum, remembering that done is better than perfect. “You’ve got so many decisions to make when you’re setting up a business, particularly a law firm, that actually you need to just make a decision, move on to the next one and not get too caught up, whether it’s your name, your brand identity or your website, just keep moving.”

Going into partnership

Johanna Drayton and Steph Dyhrberg opened Wellington boutique employment law firm Dyhrberg Drayton Employment Law in 2011. They came together at a time when Ms Drayton was looking to move on from the boutique litigation firm she was working at, and Ms Dyhrberg was looking to scale up after working in sole practice for six years.

They’d known each other for 20-odd years in a professional sense and were friendly colleagues, but at the time were not close personal friends. “We had a respect for each other, but I think it was useful that we weren’t too close then in terms of our friendship,” says Ms Drayton.

They knew they were aligned in terms of their values and how they wanted to work, and set about crafting a detailed vision for how they wanted their firm to evolve.

The partners started with an agreed value statement and a clear business plan. With the help of their lawyer, they negotiated a partnership agreement. “We wanted to start with a very clear sense of what our business is about, what our firm would stand for and who we wanted to be. That gave us a rock-solid start.”

Good communication

Working out how to effectively communicate with each other has been key to their success. The pair believe that by developing good communication patterns and addressing issues as they arise, it’s possible to avoid the politics that can arise in larger firms. “If we didn’t get on, or agree on a lot of things, and have ways of sorting out our differences then we would not survive,” says Ms Dyhrberg.

Being the boss

Despite both having prior experience of hiring and mentoring staff, doing it as the bosses was still a learning curve. “It’s very different when you are the boss, paying the bills and making those tough decisions. Giving feedback is very different than when you are a senior solicitor or associate, so we’ve had to learn a lot about hiring and managing staff,” says Ms Dyhrberg.

Creating a collegial environment was important to them, rather than the competitive scene often found in bigger firms. “Competition is healthy to a certain extent, absolutely, but I think there comes a point where it can become destructive and not necessarily bring out the best in people” says Ms Drayton. She says they try to share work fairly and equitably. “It’s based on who has got capacity and who has got the right set of skills. We’ll often give someone a job because they need to have that experience and develop.”

Renewed vigour and different stresses

Ms Drayton says setting up the firm has given her a renewed passion and excitement about the law. “It’s really invigorating. The sense of engagement that I have with my work is heightened because of the fact I am running my own firm with Steph. I think it makes the work even more meaningful. You get to craft and tailor the way you do business and develop your own approach without the fetters of bureaucracy or the political environments that can come from bigger firms.”

In terms of stress, Ms Drayton says the pressure of running a firm is different but not necessarily bigger than working for someone else. “There are different stresses because you’ve got responsibility for payroll and all the bills, but you are also able to influence.”

Top Tips

  • “Think about your ‘why’. What are the factors driving you to set up your firm? Are you crystal clear about your values?
  • Do your research. Carefully identify who is in your target market, who are your ideal clients, is there a gap in the market for what you are wanting to do?
  • Focus on your niche. Be clear about the work your firm is going to do and just as clear about what you are not going to do.
  • Make connections. Find someone who has a firm or business you admire and connect with them on LinkedIn or give them a call. Ask them how they did it and whether they have any lessons for you. People are often happy to help and the more connections you can make, particularly in a small market like New Zealand, the better.”
  • “Take the leap of faith, do your due diligence, believe in yourself. If you’re going into partnership make sure it’s with the right person,” says Ms Drayton.
  • Don’t just focus on the nuts and bolts of setting up (e.g. finding premises, setting up bank accounts, choosing logos etc). Spend time thinking about how you want to function as a business and as a partnership or a team, and what you want your brand to be. “Because if you’re not out there with a saleable brand and a way of doing things that people respond to, you won’t be able to sustain yourself,” says Ms Dyhrberg.
  • Hiring excellent staff is key: be thorough and follow good processes. Ensure a values/cultural fit.

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Last updated on the 1st September 2017