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The International Women’s Day takeover edition

This newsletter is a little different from the norm and a little longer, but for good reason – this week we welcome an exclusive take-over edition of Si’s Matters, as we focus on female founders in light of International Women’s Day.

I am very excited to welcome Florence Brocklesby as a special guest writer for this week’s edition. Florence is the founder of Bellevue Law, a boutique law firm specialising in employment law, litigation, investigations, regulation and compliance, and private client advice.

Starting out with just one lawyer – herself – in 2014, Florence has grown Bellevue Law into a thriving practice employing 23 people, including 18 senior consultants. The firm has flexible working and ethical business practices embedded deep within its DNA, and is well on its way to becoming B Corp-certified.

Here, Florence shares her insights gained from over a decade of entrepreneurship, as well as those from fellow female founders.

I hope you enjoy this edition as much as I did.

Founding principals – pooling the knowledge of female entrepreneurs

The way we work has changed immeasurably since I founded my boutique law firm, Bellevue Law, ten years ago.  At the time, I knew almost nobody who’d started a legal business, remote working was unusual and – at least in the law – flexible roles providing challenge and career progression were hard to come by.

But the past decade has seen significant technological and cultural change, including the forced roll-out of remote working on a huge scale during lockdown, paradigm shifting tech innovation and the growth and acceptance of challengers to traditional law firms such as consulting practices and alternative legal services providers.  Since the pandemic, it’s been exciting to watch so many women starting and building legal businesses, often with compelling visions of how law could be different and better.

For this International Women’s Day takeover edition of Si’s matters, I have spoken to many of my fellow female legal founders (a big thank-you to you all!) to explore their motivations, experiences and lessons learnt.

Lessons from established female founders

I started by asking experienced founders what advice they’d give to the many women launching legal businesses now – what did we get right, and what would we do differently?

Shainul Kassam, who founded Fortune Law 20 years ago, believes it’s an exciting time to be a female founder:

“There have been remarkable changes in this particular space. There are so many women I know now who have done the same thing and I am happily less alone. I also feel this is a more equitable space than I have previously known in private practice, although it is not perfect.

Starting a legal business is far from the easy option but thankfully it is now a very real one. Social media, online marketing, much easier access to affordable legal practice software and more female founders to exchange ideas and share revenue opportunities with was something not readily available when I began in 2004. It is now even more exciting to see female led legal tech businesses and I look forward to watching this space more closely.”

I agree that there are reasons to be optimistic.  When I speak to anyone considering starting a business (or, indeed, thinking of moving into a self-employed consulting role) I pass on the advice I was given: while it’s natural to worry about whether you’ll be successful in attracting a clientbase, if you are offering real solutions to clients’ problems and treating them well, why wouldn’t you be?

Benedikte Malling Bech, founder of private client practice North Star Law, says:

“Building a loyal and supportive client base giving interesting and diverse work has been the ‘easy’ part. I am also pleased we from day one had a good IT system allowing me to work from anywhere at any time – a factor that has been crucial to do the work I have done.”

Other founders agreed that future-proofing systems, and outsourcing non-core areas, has enabled them to grow and focus.  Shainul says that if she had her time again:

“We would have joined a legal accelerator programme sooner and we would have professionalised the business earlier. This means delegating specific roles to external professionals but with measurable weekly or monthly responsibilities to maximise contribution consistently. Having outsourced Legal Ops, HR, Client Relationships and Social Media has meant greater cost and management time but greater traction for our business.”

Relatedly, the established founders I spoke to told me that, if they were starting over, they would be more ruthless in holding firm to their vision, and resist the temptation to try to be all things to all people or to undervalue their skills and services.

Of course, we established founders have the benefit of hindsight, secure in the knowledge that things worked out for us and our businesses. But I agree, it is important to have a clear vision of what you are doing and why you are doing it, and to retain focus.

My own final reflection is that it’s crucial to understand the need for resilience.  Lawyers can be naturally prone to perfectionism and anxiety, but inevitably things will go wrong, and it will be very stressful at times.  So we need to find coping strategies if we are not to be overwhelmed by the rollercoaster of highs and lows that come with being an entrepreneur.  That looks different for different people; for me it comes from having a strong sense of perspective and knowing that I am doing my best.

Why are we seeing so many more female founders in the legal sector?

The Law Society reported last year that 60% of trainees, but only 35% of law firm partners, were female.  That attrition rate makes it plain that too often, the traditional law firm model simply doesn’t work for women.  So when the sea-change in habits brought about by the pandemic meant that lawyers got used to working in highly agile and flexible ways, while clients became accustomed to interacting with their advisers via remote call instead of in person, many female founders were reluctant to return to old ways.

Sarah Dodd, founder of niche practice Tree Law, was not alone in telling me that lockdown caused her to reflect on how she wanted to work:

“After the pandemic I felt the support and the strength of the business I was part of was lacking and the air of mystery was well and truly gone.  This gave me a boost to think that I could and would create something different.”

As Sana Saddique, founder of Collective Law Solicitors, which operates on a four-day working week for better work-life balance, says:

“I’d become a partner in my previous firm, and although this had been my goal, when it happened it felt anti-climatic.  In particular, I wanted to work in an environment that was less target-driven, and to retain some of the benefits of remote working and flexibility we’d seen during the pandemic. I realised that I wanted to build a business based around my own vision.

“For a long time the process of founding a law firm – especially the regulatory and compliance side – was too daunting, but I woke up one day and decided to do it.

Finally, Sarah credits the visibility and support of existing female founders with inspiring the next generation of women to build their own practices:

“So many women are starting legal businesses as, for lots of reasons, the structure of traditional legal businesses might not suit their lifestyle, priorities or values. Perhaps one of the key points is that women tend to support other women and now we can see more and more female founders, it gives confidence that it’s something which is possible.”

P is for purpose

Although this is by no means a uniquely female phenomenon, a strong sense of social purpose does seem to be a common thread that runs through many women-owned legal businesses.

When I asked female founders why this might be, sadly (but unsurprisingly) many said that it was the result of having been quite visibly exposed to how not to do things in previous jobs: lack of concern for wellbeing and an always-on culture; experiences of discrimination, harassment or bullying, or just poor culture; and being undervalued, unsupported and misunderstood.

As Shainul Kassam says:

“Purpose, culture, and ethics should not be gender-specific focal points, but rather critical components to building long-term, sustainable and impactful businesses across the board. The reason they may be attributed as being mission-critical to female-founded firms, however, is for the reasons women often cite for going out on their own.

“Women leave firms notorious not only for failing to bring about equality, but also failing to understand what motivates women and demonstrating at both junior and senior level an unwillingness or ability to reward half of their team.

“If you leave a firm like that for those reasons, is it any surprise that you would want to commit to treating colleagues fairly, being clear on what your organisation stands for and critically casting aside unfair practices? Is it any wonder you would not want to aim for profit alone at the cost of half the workforce?”

Dana Denis-Smith, the founder of Obelisk Support, which has been delivering flexible legal support since 2010 and is now B Corp certified, agrees:

“The reason so many women are motivated to build purpose-driven businesses is their lived experience”.

Like many entrepreneurs, the female founders I spoke to often had a clear vision of how things could be different and better.  Dana’s goal was not to build a more comfortable working life for herself, but to scale her business to create greater systemic change. She’s also the founder of the First 100 Years and Next 100 Years campaigns championing the history and achievements of women in law.

And Mary Bonsorfounded Flex Legal, one of the UK’s fastest-growing businesses, which offers flexible legal support while facilitating a socially mobile route to legal qualification via the SQE.  Flex Legal recently announced its acquisition by Mishcon de Reya, a great example of a business combining financial success and social benefit.

Every female founder’s dilemma: to scale or not to scale?

Every founder has her own motivations, and when it comes to defining the success of a business, growth is not necessarily the only metric.  I established my own firm with flexible working as a core principle, and while that value has allowed me to grow Bellevue Law by attracting some of the many brilliant lawyers looking for a different approach to legal practice, many of the founders I spoke to have consciously built in work-life balance at the expense of growth and profit.

As Emma Haywood, founder of Bloomworks Legal and author of The 4 Day Lawyer newsletter, says:

“One of my main priorities was to develop my practice and challenge myself professionally, while also maintaining a strong work-life balance.

“I’ve developed a knack for working sustainably and achieving the best outcomes for my clients in a shorter working week. This has been extremely valuable as I’ve adjusted to the peaks and troughs of working life as a sole practitioner. I manage my client base and business development approach carefully, with my priorities in mind.”

And everyone in Sana Saddique’s firm works a four-day week too, even if this means turning away work.

Dana Denis-Smith, however, regrets the fact that so few female founders truly scale their businesses, as she believes it is this which would create the most real and meaningful change.  With female-led businesses attracting only 3.5 % of equity invested in UK businesses in the first half of 2023 according to data compiled by Beauhurst, however, it is clear that women face the same barriers in fundraising that they experience within law firms.

And Mary Bonsor notes that work-life balance is a challenge for both smaller and fast-growth businesses:

“We decided to take investment from investors, which means you are on a path of wanting to grow to exit at some stage for your investors. We have grown quickly, but equally profitably, so I think you can always think you should have grown quicker!

“In terms of work-life balance, in the early days, when you are doing everything, it’s very hard to take a holiday, as there is no one else to send out the invoices, for example. As you scale, you hire more people, you can take more time off; but I would say that there are more plates spinning so, sadly, I don’t think you get a better work-life balance. I think to really gain good work-life balance, you need to be really clear on what your boundaries are, something I am still trying to learn!”

This chimes with my own experience.  I’ve combined control and flexibility with very hard work, and my ability to switch off has improved with the firm’s growth, and the corresponding ability to hire a business operations team and external support.

Whatever your definition of success may be, there will be compromises and sacrifices along the way.

The exodus: what can law firms do to stop losing their female talent?

It’s clear that many female founders were motivated to create opportunities they didn’t believe were available to them in traditional law firms.  It’s perhaps not surprising they feel that way: the SRA’s summer 2023 diversity survey showed that only 34% of partners, and 28% of equity partners in large firms are women and gender pay gaps at some of the largest firms are above 50%.

So what can large firms do to counteract these push factors and retain more of these talented women?

My own view, as someone who regularly represents female lawyers in employment law disputes, is that while many firms recognise that this is a real issue, sadly too often they lack the commitment to take the steps required to address it.  Not only overt bullying and harassment, but also unsustainable billable hour targets, misplaced perceptions about what leadership looks like and the commitment of working mothers and unclear and moveable targets all contribute to women voting with their feet.

Shainul Kassam says:

“Larger firms ought all the way along to agree and set clear, measurable and objective goals towards progression, to show not just to tell and to ensure that such goals take into account the time needed for motherhood (for those who choose it) and balancing out unequal career growth opportunities as a result of that journey.”

Laura Brunnen is a former City-firm partner, and now the founder of corporate boutique Threadneedle Law and March Women, a networking community for women in M&A.  When I asked Laura for her thoughts on how larger firms could ensure there are more opportunities for women to rise to the top, she said:

“When you’re in the minority, it’s hard to press for change without it looking self-serving, even though you know that it will be better for everyone in the longer term. I think the thing with most law firms is that they are scared to lose the golden goose and are very focused on short term profits.

“In terms of practical changes, women need to play their part too. We think that being dependable, loyal, going the extra mile, taking on the extra ‘wife work tasks’ and being an outstanding lawyer will be good enough.  It’s not (for the moment at least). Look at the (typically male) rainmakers – they don’t do any of that stuff.  Women need to invest time and energy in being loyal to themselves and building their own better books of business.”

Personally, I would like to see large law firms properly get to grips with parenthood.  That means not only granting equal parental leave at equal pay to all new parents, but also creating a culture in which it is expected that both men and women will use it, with male partners leading by example.

Clients are also able to exert influence by being more rigorous and detail-orientated in holding firms accountable for their DEI efforts.  The return from maternity leave can be a particularly challenging time, and a number of the female clients I’ve represented have had client relationships disrupted during this period, so I’d love to see clients making it clear that they expect a lawyer to return to servicing them after her leave finishes.

In these ways, everyone could win, not least the law firms themselves, who might retain more brilliantly talented women, in a world which has changed, and provides many more exciting opportunities. Becoming a founder is just one of those opportunities.

News in brief

Under pressure: internal legal teams feel the brunt of cost-cutting

As reported in the Law Society Gazette last week, extensive industry research conducted for the Thomson Reuters 2023 Legal Department Operations Index has found that in-house legal teams are having to manage increasing workloads with flat or declining budgets as more work is brought in-house to cut costs.

Meet A&O Shearman’s new senior and managing partners

As we draw ever closer to the 1 May completion date for one of the legal sector’s most hotly anticipated mergers, The Lawyer (and many other legal news outlets) published the names of the nascent megafirm’s new leadership team.

Litigation funding is back

On Monday, Law.Com International reported on the Government’s announcement that it is planning to overturn a Supreme Court ruling from last year that undermined the enforceabilty of many litigation funding agreements; this will make it easier for members of the public to secure the financial backing of third parties when launching complex claims.

A panoply of partners

Drawing on data provided by legal recruiter Edwards Gibson City A.M. reported on Tuesday that partner hires in the City were at the second-highest rate ever recorded during January and February this year, despite the tough current economic conditions.

Lewis Silkin the latest firm to introduce 26-week parental leave policy

The Lawyer reported on Wednesday that UK top 100 commercial law firm Lewis Silkin has joined firms including Ashurst, Boodle Hatfield and Clyde & Co in offering its employees 26 weeks off at full pay when they become parents, regardless of gender identity.

Thank you to Florence for a fantastic edition!

Si Marshall

simon.marshall@2bd.me

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