Going solo

Going soloThis is written for the benefit of all lawyers out there chewing their nails to bits or having panic attacks over their employment situation. Whether you have been made redundant or fear redundancy may be coming, here is my story and how I have coped with the doom and gloom of the economic crisis and all it entails.

I qualified at Nabarro Nathanson as a non-contentious construction lawyer in 1998 and at that time felt that the world was my oyster and nothing could ever go wrong. The recession of the late 1980s/early ‘90s was over and it was easy to walk in to a job.

In fact, for one good reason or another, I moved around quite a bit (Nicholson Graham and Jones, Lovells and Maples Teesdale were among my moves). In those days, every time I looked for a job, I was offered loads of interviews and the job offers just kept coming. When I was asked by Jeffrey Green Russell to head up a new construction department in 2006 and build a practice it was one of the scariest moments of my career. Scary because I would effectively be a sole practitioner (so there was no one I could bounce ideas off), and scary because I would be responsible for building a practice and doing far more marketing than I had ever been asked to do before. I also knew that I would not be offered partnership unless I proved my worth.

I managed to prove my technical ability to the head of property and managing partner early on and was certainly making all the right moves on the marketing front from the outset. Little did I know when I joined, though, that I was two months pregnant. And JGR didn’t know either! I remember walking around the office in loose clothes and breathing in all the time to hide the bump that was getting bigger while I tried to get through my probationary period without my pregnancy being detected. Because of my pregnancy and inevitable maternity leave, my partnership prospects went on hold when JGR was finally told of my predicament. Having said that, I had done six months of marketing and in order to keep things going I endured five months of working from home with a baby. I thought, “I have to make partner and if I have to do this to keep up momentum and show my commitment, then I will”.

I returned to work full time in January 2007 and eight months later, partnership was finally offered. I felt I had arrived. I had managed to achieve all my career goals and never thought anything would change for the worse. Sadly, two months after I made partner, Northern Rock collapsed and from that point on, the property and construction industries slowly started to feel the impact.

By Christmas 2007 things still looked like they might turn around by the end of the first quarter of 2008, and that this was just a blip. I went to MIPIM, made loads of contacts and was seeing work referrals coming my way right up to last June. Even as late as July last year I was getting face to face meetings with blue chip companies who were interested in meeting me to see if I could act for them.

My figures during all this time, though, were in decline and I think it was about April 2008 when I started to get worried. Even though I was the only specialist construction lawyer at JGR, I knew that even I wouldn’t continue to pay someone where there was little or no work to be done. The decline in my figures was not because I had done something wrong. I was doing all the right things but as the markets crumpled and the rest of the major banks showed real signs of struggle, especially over the June-September 2008 period, work dried up. Even before the 3rd quarter of last year developers and property investors had either slowed down or stopped buying, developing and selling land completely. Contractors were going bust and law firms had started redundancy programmes nationwide.

In September last year it was my turn to go through the redundancy process that was sweeping the nation. I was advised at the start of September that I would be going through a consultation period for the purposes of redundancy. Even though I had been really worried about the possibility of this happening, nothing actually prepares you for how you are going to feel when the process gets real and starts.

My immediate reaction to the news was one of panic. In fact, panic is probably an understatement of how I felt. I felt like the whole world was crashing in around me. I cried, couldn’t sleep, was worried about how I was going to meet my mortgage payments and support my family of husband and two small children. Being the main breadwinner in the family just added to the mounting pressure.

I immediately sent out my CV to recruitment consultants and started looking for a new full time role. I was so desperate at that time that I didn’t even care about whether I got a job as a partner or a senior associate. I just needed to make ends meet. I also had to go through three or four meetings with my boss during the consultation period, constantly trying to argue my corner and constantly trying to find ways to convince JGR to keep me on.

By the end of September I felt that redundancy was imminent and that there was no escape for me, so I agreed to leave the firm. Recruitment consultants were talking me to every day and giving me some hope that a new opportunity might be round the corner. Having never had a problem getting another job before, I lived in hope that a miracle would occur and I would get something. What I didn’t know was that many of the firms who had been looking for new talent were slowly coming to the decision to pull jobs from the market. So, having left JGR, I was then faced with this bad news.

What was worse was that I did actually get a few interviews during October but firms wanted massive followings which I could not offer. Most of my clients had stopped transacting and from the time I became partner to the time I was a partner no longer, I felt like I had been chasing work which was never there in the first place. All these potential employers were very impressed with me and I got great feedback, but nothing was taken any further with any of them because I couldn’t produce £300,000 a year in revenue. Every time I finally heard back from a recruitment consultant about a job I had been interviewed for the feeling of hope and “I haven’t done anything to deserve this and so…surely….luck will be on my side” got crushed. My world was depressing and I was depressed. In fact I think I stayed in bed for most of my consultation period, feeling too exhausted, shocked and worried to do anything other than be swallowed up. I have never felt that low and hope to god I will never feel that low again.

Usually I am good at seeing a light at the end of the tunnel and getting enough strength to go forward and turn a negative into a positive but during that period, I lost sight of everything and just gave up trying. And then something happened which turned everything around. This tiny event in the grand scheme of things made me sit up and think. I was getting an idea!

Two days after I left JGR one of my clients called me to give me new instructions. But what was I to do? I didn’t work for anyone anymore. So I went back to JGR, told them my news and told them I wanted to act for this client and would they take me back somehow so I could earn some money. After discussing the situation with my ex-boss, it was agreed that I would consult for JGR on an ad hoc basis as a self-employed person and be paid an hourly rate for any work I did for them. There was no fixed-term contract, no tie-in for either of us, no prohibition placed on me regarding working for anyone else at the same time, and I could work from home to avoid me having to lay out travel expenses each day. Because I needed money and wanted to get back to doing something relatively normal instead of moping around the house and taking out my frustrations on my husband, my consultancy agreement with JGR was formed. That was the event which effectively has turned my life around…although it is still early days and you never know what might happen.

I had always wanted to work for myself but never wanted to be a sole practitioner with all the headache that that entails (money laundering compliance, administration, having to find work and seek out new clients, etc.) However, those that work for themselves and are entrepreneurial are the ones most likely to be successful in life… ….more successful than working for someone else.

I used to think, “Why can’t I invent something that no one has thought about and make my millions?” Well, to some extent, in my own mind I have invented something (although I am sure other people may be doing what I am now doing already…it’s just I have never come across other lawyers doing it to the same extent as me). I have taken a concept and developed and marketed that concept to its full potential. I am a freelance lawyer in the truest sense of the phrase.

Basically, I have taken my consultancy agreement with JGR and offered my services under those terms and conditions to every law firm I am aware of who has anything to do with construction and engineering law. I offer legal advice to law firms at hourly rates. There is no office or desk expense for the firm, as I work remotely from home. There is no tax or national insurance for the firm to pay, as I am self employed. There are no full time wages to pay, which are paid to lawyers even when they are working under fixed term contracts and sitting twiddling their thumbs because work is a mixture of peaks and troughs. There is no paid holiday and no benefits for a firm to have to worry about. My hourly rate is always less than the hourly rate the law firm is charging me out at to its clients, so the firm is guaranteed to make a profit. It’s a win-win situation. It can service its clients and I am a pay-as-you-go lawyer with no strings attached.

And a while a new business always builds up slowly,with firms like JGR, Mishcon de Reya, Davenport Lyons, Bonallack and Bishop, BTMK Solicitors and Banner Jones Ltd behind me, things can only get better.

Risky for me? Yes. Do I still get worried and have sleepless nights? Yes. Am I a happier, stronger and more determined person now than I was 3 months ago? Yes. Did setting up my new business take a huge amount of effort and time? Yes (Two full months, in fact). Was the Law Society helpful every time I rang the ethics helpline to check something out? Yes (but slow in getting back to me).

And lastly, has my negative become a positive? Too early to tell, but the signs are there that with hard graft, ambition and lots of support from my family, friends and fellow professionals (THANK YOU!) I will make it.