Breaking with the law

Law firms are continuing to up their game in the bid to retain and motivate their lawyers. Last month (March) Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer held its first-ever associate away-day as part of an ongoing plan to improve engagement with its junior lawyers. This follows Allen & Overy’s decision earlier this year to appoint an associate to its global management team for the first time.

However, as law firms become more inventive in the ways they try to tackle associate retention rates, an increasing number of associates are capitalising on the experience they have gained in the City and are going on to set up businesses of their own.

“Ultimately, the people who go into the law generally are talented people with ambition, and they’re the ones most likely to branch out on their own and start their own business,” says former DLA Piper competition associate Lara Quie, who left the law at four years’ PQE. “It also helps that they’ve been exposed to other people’s businesses during their time as a lawyer. You can learn from that.”

In 2005 Quie and business partner Sofia Bune, who still practises as a part-time senior competition associate at Baker & McKenzie, set up Swedish kitchen business Sola Kitchens after Bune was having trouble finding a suitable kitchen for her new flat in London.

Bune tells The Lawyer: “I couldn’t find anything of particularly good value for money in London, so I went to Sweden, where I come from, and had a look at the options out there. I found a manufacturer who could custom build a kitchen for me at a much cheaper price.”

Bune and Quie quickly realised that there was a gap in the market for these kitchens. “We were looking at kitchens, compared what was on offer over here, saw a niche and went for it,” says Quie. “For me, leaving the law was more about the work-life balance. I found that being a lawyer involved very long hours and found it very stressful, with the feeling of not being in control.

“I was also ready to start a family, but didn’t think partnership would be compatible with family life. I asked myself, ’If I don’t want to be a partner in the long term, then what is the point of climbing the ladder?’.

“The trouble with the law is that the salaries are very good and they can lock you in. Trying to find something else that will pay you the same amount of money isn’t easy. You may not make millions as a lawyer, but with your own business you just might. It’s a gamble.”

Entrepreneurial spirit
Another pair of former lawyers who were inspired to set up their own business after practising as City solicitors are former Clifford Chance and Slaughter and May associates Jonny Goldstone and Tom Pakenham. The duo launched the environmentally friendly minicab service greentomatocars in 2006.

Pakenham tells The Lawyer: “The move away from the law was a positive decision. I was very happy at Slaughters, but I felt that I wanted to create something new of my own and the timing was right.” Pakenham left Slaughters in October 2004 after qualifying in March the same year.

“I’ve always been interested in the environment and the one thing that struck me generally was that so little progress was being made in the environmental sector,” he continues. “Green products are still expensive, not necessarily good quality and are often seen as part of an elitist, politically left-wing movement.

“We decided to try to launch something that wasn’t any of those three things. Taxis were the first thing that I decided were suitable, as they’re not a too distant or vague concept.”

Greentomatocars runs a fleet of Toyota Prius cars, which switch between an electric motor and a petrol engine, depending on conditions, and are claimed to emit less than half the amount of carbon dioxide as traditional black cabs.

Goldstone, who qualified into Clifford Chance’s corporate team in 2004 and who left the firm around a year after qualifying, says his experience in the City partly inspired the business idea.

“What struck me when leaving the office in the middle of the night at Canary Wharf was that all the lights in the offices were being left on – people weren’t even working in most of them. You also become aware of the paper wastage in the City. My environmental drive is more about getting people to make little changes towards helping the environment.”

Goldstone and Pakenham both agree that their time as lawyers has been “massively, hugely helpful” to the setting up and running of their business.

“Setting up your own business means you basically do everything,” says Pakenham. “We do most of our own legal work. Law helps in more general ways as well though – in making presentations and in drafting business plans. It also teaches you the key skill of being analytical [and] the ability to present things clearly and work out the right and wrong answers.”

Goldstone says he “seriously enjoyed certain aspects” of being a lawyer and acknowledges that the “grounding it gave me has stood me in good stead for this”.

He highlights the fact that “after a while it becomes hard to leave – especially the bigger firms”.

He adds: “You get used to the financial security, get used to better holidays, might have a bigger mortgage and have school fees to pay. I suppose the light at the end of the tunnel towards partnership becomes conceptually ever closer, so you might become tempted to hang around.

“Perhaps you also get used to doing mundane work rather than feel disturbed by it.”

Not straying too far
While for some lawyers the decision to end their careers as practising solicitors may signal their departure from the law altogether, others seem keen to keep their roots firmly in the legal profession.

Travers Smith business development manager Hannah Boddy joined the firm as a trainee in 2004 before qualifying in 2006.

“Upon qualification I was offered a job in the department of my choice, but this role came up in the firm’s business development department. It’s a different way to use the law as opposed to leaving it really,” says Boddy, who believes that the skills gained as a lawyer would be much sought after by other professional employers. “I think it’s that perfectionism that people pick out in lawyers, as well as the commercial approach they take. You can go to law school and learn the law by heart, but it’s the problem-solving and analytical skills of a lawyer that really stand out.”

Former Richards Butler shipping associate William Cock left the law at around one year-qualified to become a legal recruiter. He says that, while he enjoyed his time at Richards Butler, he admits that he was “just not very well suited to being a lawyer”.

Cock, who now works at First Counsel, tells The Lawyer: “Being a lawyer can be a very good springboard to being a banker if you’re a finance lawyer, for example; but being a lawyer per se doesn’t help you to do other things. It’s only a good thing if you’re pretty sure that you want to be a lawyer.”

A good grounding
The general consensus among former City associates who have taken the plunge to set up their own businesses is that the skills gained during their time as lawyers have been vital in the effective and confident running of their new businesses.

“My legal background has proven essential,” says Sofia de Meyer, former Ashurst corporate associate and founder of Whitepod, a high-tech eco-resort located in the Swiss Alps.

“If I’d set up after university I’d probably have gone bankrupt,” she says. “But I think that any competitive profession teaches you to be very well organised, because you have to be.”

De Meyer trained and qualified at Ashurst, and while she says that she really enjoyed her years as a lawyer, at four years’ PQE she says she had “reached a crossroads” and thought, ’if I stay longer, I’d have to make it a long-time career’.

She therefore decided to leave the law in 2003 to focus on setting up Whitepod, a luxury eco-camp where guests can choose to reside in one of the camp’s nine ’pods’, which are designed to resemble igloos.

“I always promised myself that if I were to leave the law and that kind of professional structure, then I’d do something completely different with the primary goal of making myself happy,” she says. “Often I find that lawyers feel frustrated in their jobs. I don’t think they should do because law is a fantastic profession that can open so many doors. I’m very positive about my legal background.”

Another lawyer who has recently made the move away from law is former Sidley Austin associate Rocky Unadkat. Unadkat left the US firm earlier this month (April) to fully concentrate on his sideline property investment business, which he started eight years ago while still a trainee. He recently set up property company Romun Capital and is working on structuring a new Indian real estate fund.

Unadkat tells The Lawyer: “My experience as a lawyer has been invaluable. Obviously there’s nothing stopping you from running your own business from the outset after university, but training and working as a lawyer has given me an incredible insight into how businesses run and how management thinks and works.

“The level of contact you have having worked in the City is also invaluable and credibility is key. It provides a very good base from which to go into business and be entrepreneurial.”

So while firms are increasing the training and career support functions offered to their associates, it appears the skills these initiatives provide may in fact encourage associates to go it alone.