Taking on the big boys

Sarah Angell took the plunge to become a sole practitioner and hasn't looked back

The future of sole practice is bleak, or so I was told when contemplating setting up practice four years ago. “You are brave,” people kept saying.

However, this negative attitude made me more determined to achieve my goals. The classic comment was: “Oh well, as long as you don't expect to be the biggest and the best.” This comment summed up the prevailing but mistaken attitude towards sole practitioners and small practices that big is synonymous with good. My response is: “I'll never pretend to be the biggest, but I see no reason why I shouldn't be one of the best at what I do.”

Four years ago I set up with a legal aid franchise in mind and was already sold on the idea of standardisation and control. I have successfully divided labour in my own practice to achieve good productivity, uniformity of quality and standards and streamlined management.

Many of the franchise requirements coincided with my own views of how to run a successful family law practice and as a sole practitioner I had the freedom to implement my own systems. This has enabled me to establish a flourishing practice and I was among the first to obtain a legal aid franchise. I have only one recorded minor non-compliance, which related to the board's requirement to give clients estimates of costs at the start of a case.

I hope that I have demonstrated that, when properly run, small firms can be as efficient as large ones and have a better chance of meeting practice management standards and the Legal Aid Board's criteria because of the ability of the principal solicitor to maintain absolute control. Surely, therefore, on the grounds of the quality argument alone there should be a future for the sole practice.

Ah, but what of profitability? The accepted view is that there is only money to be made in large practices. Through the efficient, economical organisation of my practice, combined with self-discipline, I am able to net an income equivalent to what I would be earning as an equity partner in a large, provincial firm.

I am lucky to have a good team behind me, although it has taken me several years to reach this stage. We all share the same goals which creates a happy working environment.

By contrast, the cost of running a large practice can be immense, not only in the obvious expenditure incurred in maintaining the image and prestige associated with a large firm but also in the waste of human resources, talent and energy.

Is it surprising, therefore, that such a system should breed the disillusioned individual greedy for independence and freedom of thought?

After the merger-happy 1980s it is encouraging to see the number of small and sole practices emerging. I believe the profession will regenerate itself in this way as the badly run, larger practices stagnate.

Through the maintenance of control, quality and profitability, sole practitioners should have a promising future and immense job satisfaction.

There are however, external factors militating against the survival of sole practices. Franchising requirements and the threat of exclusivity are bound to be seen as yet another nail in the coffin of the generalist sole practitioner.

I have an advantage in that mine is a niche practice dealing almost exclusively with family work. I am not complacent about my future and can see many dangers looming, including divorce reform, exclusivity and competitive tendering for legal aid work etc.

The future is a daunting prospect, but I will give it my best shot. I have found that the rewards of sole practice are considerable and I will give everything I have got in order to continue working on my own terms, a feeling which I believe is shared by many who are in my position. External factors permitting, I do not see why we should not continue to be a stone in the legal establish-ment's shoe for a considerable time yet. I do hope so.

Sarah Angell is principal solicitor at Angell and Company.