Overwork and inflexible work practices can leave a partner in his 40s feeling jaded at the prospect of at least another 10 years of the same. The maverick appeal of smaller niche practices or independent consultancy can suddenly become attractive, even to the most staid of “company men”.
Dale Langley left his position as head of employment law at Ashurst Morris Crisp in 1993 to set up his own niche practice in employment law.
A major reason for making the move was to gain more control of his work. “One of the main difficulties at Ashursts was that the firm wanted to move towards acting for corporate clients alone,” he explains. “My interests lie in providing a full employment service.”
Langley says setting up on your own is not easy: “I started very much on my own. It was hard work and we had a difficult year, but I enjoyed the challenge and the new skills I acquired having never set up my own business in the past.”
The advantages of starting off small, says Langley, are that things can be kept simple and cost-effective. He explains: “For my initial IT system, I bought a computer and printer and wrote most of the accountancy software myself.”
Having recently left Slaughter and May, where he was a senior corporate tax partner, James Savory says other people may judge his move to consultancy as “a failure in a few years time, because I will not have taken on two or three partners”. However, his is a “lifestyle decision” which does not involve building up an entire business in the way Langley describes.
Savory thinks it is important to measure success against a benchmark of his aims: “The theory is that I will only be responsible to myself and my own clients.
“The ethos at law firms goes against saying no to any work, so now I will have more control over the hours that I am available to work and the type of work I undertake.”
The special project lawyer at Quarry Dougall has a roster of legal consultants, typically ex-senior partners who are now acting as independent consultants to blue-chip companies and smaller to mid-sized legal firms which do not need long-term specialist support of their own. Quarry Dougall consultant Nicky Rutherford-Jones operates in this area.
“This is a growing market but no one has quite realised it,” she says. “Consultants in other areas are commonplace but they are very new to the legal market. It is a very commercial option and attractive to law firms and companies, because consultants usually charge at an hourly rate which undercuts the rate of partners at law firms.”
Rutherford-Jones warns that becoming a consultant is not the best option for everybody. She explains: “You have to be very upfront and good with clients, and you have to be good at marketing, because it is much harder to attract and keep clients when there is no weight of the firm behind you. You also need to be operating in one of the demand areas and have your own niche.”
She adds that moving to a consultancy status requires a great deal of commitment. “It is not a soft option by any means,” she says, “and consultants often find that they are working even longer hours than before, but the advantage is they can afford to manage their time more to their own needs.”