Going It Alone
By Marilyn Stowe
From a converted cobbler’s shop in Leeds to opening a third office in central London, Marilyn Stowe’s practice has come a long way in 30 years – but it hasn’t always been an easy ride, she explains as she celebrates her firm’s anniversary
Ours isn’t the biggest law firm out there but, even so, I’m incredibly proud – not to mention a little incredulous – whenever I consider how far we have come from inauspicious beginnings. Next year marks the opening of our third office, in central London, and also our 30th anniversary.
As so many founders of law firms have discovered before me, there is a world of difference between being a good lawyer and running a successful practice. Although the past 30 years haven’t always been a smooth ride, I wouldn’t swap them and I’d like to share some of what I have learned along the way.
The first office opened in 1982, in a converted cobbler’s shop in a modest suburb of Leeds. My husband, also a solicitor, had the idea for me to ‘branch out’. The area he chose had the city’s densest conurbation of both private and council housing, and a good mix of conveyancing and legal aid work was expected. With a secretary for company, I opened for business.
In reality, of course, it wasn’t as simple as that. The first piece of advice that I would give to any solicitor hoping to set up his or her own practice is this: even if you are bursting with entrepreneurial vision, don’t expect any easy wins. My first office was funded by a bank loan of £28,000 – quite a sum to borrow in those days – and I felt the pressure.
I set myself a target of one new case per day. A will, a house purchase, a debt, a divorce… anything! It was soon clear that when it came to building a good reputation locally, there were no shortcuts. It didn’t help that the regulations of the time prohibited solicitors from advertising their services. Instead, I made regular rounds of all the local building societies, estate agents, hairdressers and shops, introducing myself and trying to charm people into sending work my way. It was a slow, time-consuming process, and it certainly wasn’t what I had envisaged doing when I decided to become a lawyer, but eventually it paid off. People in the area got to know me and I used to chat with new acquaintances, who, in turn, referred their friends and family.
These days firms are able to promote themselves in a variety of ways, from billboards to Twitter, but, for any new firm, the same principle still applies. Reputations are formed over time and with great care, piece by piece, referral by referral.
There was also a good deal of opposition and cynicism to overcome, even from suppliers. In 1982, female company directors were a novelty in Yorkshire. My bank manager of the time made weekly inspection visits. The majority of competitors and suppliers were men, many of whom clearly regarded female business owners as doomed curiosities. Others were rude to my face.
Times have changed and anybody opening a practice in 2012 is unlikely to face what I did 30 years ago, but one challenging business environment has been replaced with another. For a solicitor today it may be Tesco law and current economic conditions. My advice: don’t underestimate your challenges, but never underestimate how far determination and tenacity can take you.
In the early years I frequently felt completely alone, but managed somehow. Eventually I was able to take on additional staff and the office began to grow.
What might I have done differently? Well, if you have someone at home caring for the children, you have more time to devote to business. My husband is a legal aid lawyer who works every hour he can, so I never had that luxury. It has to be said that, unless you can leave your baby for more than half a day at a time, which I never could, family life can clip your wings. During the 1990s and beyond, I turned down a number of opportunities to grow the firm in a different direction and at a faster rate. I don’t regret this though. My family came first and always will.
The biggest sacrifice was the decision to stop doing legal aid work. Childcare commitments, along with reduced working hours, meant that I had to maximise profits in order to sustain the firm. Financially it made sense; in other ways it was a difficult break to make.
However, when I stand outside our newest office, watching the four-storey building take shape, I can’t help but smile when I think back to those modest rooms in the cobbler’s shop. Thirty years on, the feelings of excitement, trepidation and gratitude are the same. Strike out on your own and you are in for quite some ride – but, if your experience is anything like mine, you won’t look back.
Marilyn Stowe is senior partner at Stowe Family Law. She blogs at www.marilynstowe.co.uk