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So what’s running a law firm really like?

Maybe it’s because we opened our offices during the period between Christmas and New Year, or maybe because it’s cold and dark a lot of the time, but I’ve found January to be a very long month. We’ve been inundated with a wave of new client enquiries – far more, in fact, than we’ve ever had in a single month before. Over 300 people so far have booked appointments at our various offices, and it’s not even the end of January yet!

So am I doing cartwheels? It’s great news of course that the public has such confidence in Stowe Family Law. But that apart, what’s it really like being a Senior Partner of this firm? Well; the overall answer is that every day seems relentless. It’s a tough, 24/7 job.

Every day we must deliver, because we have obligations both to our clients and to everyone in the firm.

We owe it to the people who instruct us to deliver the best results possible, with excellent client care along the way. That means investment in people and in systems, listening to all those bodies which regulate us whether we like it or not, because what they have to say is sometimes expensive and time-consuming. At the same time, we need to ensure that the firm continues to grow and develop, that it stays profitable and is a good place to work.  And if I was ever tempted to think otherwise, the sad news of 136 law firms closing recently would be enough to keep me extra vigilant. 136? It’s a huge number and who knows, there may be even more to come, given reports of other well-known firms facing substantial redundancies and still others large and small making substantial cash calls to their partners.

As the Senior Partner of a law firm, my working day isn’t about running particular client cases any more. I do see some clients at the outset, to give a steer, overall strategy and advice; but I don’t run their case on a day-to-day basis. If and when I’m needed, I can come back and give an opinion. It’s a system that works very well and cuts clients’ costs too. Our clients have great confidence in all our solicitors, who work together as a genuine team of good lawyers, and there is rarely any need for me to provide further input on a case after that initial meeting, although I’m always happy to do so.

All this frees me up to focus on my full time job these days, which is running the business. It’s becoming more of a juggernaut every year. We have opened offices in different locations throughout the recession. We flatly refused to allow the slump to hinder us and we kept on going even as our longer established neighbours closed. All those offices do need to be managed, marketed and of course, grow, in order to remain profitable. The partners in each office are lawyers, but for any business to be successful, the overall brand development, business strategy and general ongoing development all need people with time to focus on the bigger picture.

Over the years our admin team has learned much about what we need to do and how to do it. It’s been a tale of trial and error of course, but gradually I think we’ve honed, developed and refined our brand, so that each office in each specific area can open smoothly, with good expectations of attracting clients and providing the level of service those clients want within a budget that will work. We have more offices coming on stream for this coming year.

The recession which began in 2008 has been as hard on law firms as it has been on other sectors of the economy. Times have been tough and the learning curve has been steep for all of us. And when the going does get tough, you have to face up to the realities of the situation and work out how to change things and attract new clients through those doors. You have to work out how to grow your market share, whether you are confined to a single town or city or you run offices across the country – even the world! As one of the partners in a major accountancy firm said to me: “We’re getting the work in, but it’s a lot harder than it used to be and it’s never guaranteed.”

Of course if the work dries up and cannot be replaced, then there’s little you can do about that even with the best will in the world. I’ve watched as legal aid has been cut and I’ve seen the cash flow consequences for so many solicitors and barristers who are being strangled financially across the country. They are putting up a magnificent fight but ultimately how much can they do if they depended on legal aid clients?

Over here in the private client sector, things are only a little different. I suspect the huge numbers of new enquiries we have had this month do not indicate a significant new trend, so no, I’m not doing those new business cartwheels just yet. Prospective new clients are evidence of public awareness and support for our brand without the massive resources much larger firms have to market, but firm evidence of an overall trend will be found in how many of those calls do turn into cases, versus how many turn out simply to be the product of a media induced post- Christmas panic which eventually calms down.

I will soon be given all the monthly stats and will be closely examining the facts and figures which will help me to keep developing our brand and business. And I will be interested to know whether and where in the country there are similarities and differences.

Meanwhile, I still love writing for this blog as well as answering the many questions from readers. Answering their queries often seems not unlike taking a law exam! I’m very proud of the blog and with the ever changing development of the law practice and procedure it keeps me on my toes. I have always loved an academic challenge. Writing about family law, with all its twists and turns and new cases is a reminder that underneath it all, I’m a 30 year qualified family lawyer still working in a field I love.

Some people have asked me why I bother. The answer is simple. I have a hope that my firm, grown from such a little acorn, will still be here in many years’ time with the same ethos I have today and have always had. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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  1. DT says:

    There’s not many people who would have had the gumption to have started what you did – let alone take it to a whole new level like you have Marilyn. #shining light.

    I always like reading your pieces on here.


  2. Steve says:

    An interesting blog and a useful insight, one question I have that as business do you encourage a “Cost-build” approach?

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Dear Steve
      If I did, do you think we’d still be in business?
      Lots of PR and a costs building approach, might both pay off for a time, but the public aren’t daft. They do literally vote with their feet and they listen to other people at one of the most important times of their lives and they go to firms others have used and know can be trusted to deliver a decent result.
      There is no certainty at all for any law firm right now. You may have read recently about how some solicitors even go dishonest simply to make big bucks and turn in high fees. That’s rare and inexcusable, but everyone is under pressure.
      For us the real truth is, to run a law firm for 30odd years, build it up and keep growing against all the odds, and believe me the odds are stacked against us these days, even government and judges actively undermining the part we play in the process, we are still doing everything as best we can. I also haven’t even written about the snobbishness Ive come up against throughout all my career being a provincial, female, solicitor.
      Family law is still a great field to work in. I can only keep doing my best. I don’t hit it off with everyone but no one does.

  3. Tristan says:

    Running a law firm is like running any other consultancy business with one significant difference. Normal consultancy businesses don’t receive state aid.

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Dear Tristan
      Neither does mine. But most businesses have HMRC coming at them. We seem to have not only them with their determinations this year because we’re regarded as easier touches than off shore foreign billionaires living here, and even more government departments and the judiciary on top, coming at us!

  4. Tristan says:

    Isn’t it about time that the archaic Inns of Court were closed? Could those near-feudal fellows – exemplars of fine diners all – not be packed off to the provinces where they could sit at Marilyn’s knee and learn a thing or two as to what modern fine dining really is all about. Plus a touch of feminism of course to round off their rather sheltered take on the world. Could the very high seat of Justice itself not be moved to Leeds, I wonder? I’ve heard important people say this country needs to rebalance itself before London splits off as a separate city state akin to medieval Venice or Amalfi. Appointing Marilyn as a judge at the UK supreme court in Leeds would be a start perhaps. The old boys newly up from London might get a shock when they ask her to put the kettle on

    Just why do female lawyers feel being provincial and not a man, counts against them?

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