Karen, you decided to start your own law firm, tell us everything we need to know about you.
I founded A City Law Firm in 2009 , before this I worked in an international Law Firm in the Stand managing a great team of solicitors and foreign lawyers. Prior to enrolling as a solicitor I worked as a senior manager and criminologist within the public sector, whilst obtaining my professional qualifications part-time at the college of law.
I completed my law degree and I went on to obtain a Masters at Cambridge University before moving to London to start my career. I never considered running my own business, until the opportunity presented itself. It was a daunting prospect at first but I’m so glad I took the plunge and I actually wish I’d done it sooner.
A City Law Firm provides legal expertise to entrepreneurs, start-ups, celebrities and high-net worth individuals who require support with complex disputes, investment advice, family, employment or general business advice. We also specialise in case work regarding surrogacy and all LGBT matters, some of which have been particularly harrowing.
Building the business has been an incredible journey and over the past couple of years, we have won several awards including Most Innovation Law Firm, London 2016 and The Lawyer International Legal 100 2016.
What inspired you to start A City Law firm?
I started A City Law Firm because I’d become disillusioned about how employers and specifically lawyers operated. Clients had become numbers, billable hours were more important than quality work and there was little staff development. The environment became quite oppressive.
After careful consideration, I thought about starting my own practice where I could offer clients integrity, quality work, competitive rates and actually, start enjoying my job again.
At this point, my husband and I discussed starting a family and I was concerned about the impact pregnancy could have on my career. This played quite a big part in my decision to launch the firm because I strongly believe in the work/life balance, which is not always achievable when you work for big corporate firms.
How did you go about getting the firm off the ground?
Like any new business, the road to success has not been smooth! I made the mistake of setting up with other partners who I had worked with only briefly. Their attitude to work and clients did not mirror mine at all and I soon realised it was a mistake. As such, I had the terrible mess of untangling myself from the newly established firm which could have cost me everything but luckily, another firm who had been headhunting me agreed to buy the business if I developed their practice for a year.
After this, I took back the firm and went it alone with a clean slate. I learnt a tough lesson, which caused me serious stress and anxiety, but I was not prepared to compromise my values and work ethics so I started again alone.
The biggest asset to me was the support of clients who came with me, many who had worked with me for over seven years. Those clients never lost faith, stuck by me and now 13 years on they are still with me.
My husband and mum helped no end with support and even answering phones when I needed help.
How important has social media been in growing your business?
Social media is quite new to us because traditionally, we would tend to grow our business through networking, referrals and the website. We now use twitter, Facebook, blogging and newsletters to attract clients and engage with existing ones.
The social media campaigns are targeted towards particular networking groups and we have started to build an online presence, which is really good to see.
Tell us about your magic hour.
In the very early stages, every moment was used to make the business a success, even if that meant not getting home to put the baby to bed or missing date night with hubby. I’d spend family holidays permanently glued to my iPhone, sneak off to make calls at dinner parties and be disengaged with friends whilst responding to client emails. Getting the balance right is hard but there is a solution if you don’t mind sacrificing a little sleep.
To avoid disrupting quality family time, I often resume work during ‘the magic hours’. This is usually between midnight and 3am when my husband and Son are asleep. It’s a hugely productive time of day because I can work uninterrupted, without feeling guilty. I also find that it gives me the edge in business because I can get so much work done and be better prepared for clients in the morning.
The ‘magic hours’ enables me to take my Son to school and read him a bedtime story. I can get up to speed on client depositions and still have time to meet friends for cocktails or hubby for dinner.
I acknowledge this isn’t a solution for everyone, especially if you like a solid eight hours each night, but luckily for me, I love what I do and I am happy to lose a little shut eye if it means more time with my loved ones.
It’s a system that has worked brilliantly for me over the years and has hopefully benefited our clients too.
You’ve won the Most Innovative Law firm , London of the Year 2016 award; how did that feel?
We have won awards for our work before, but this one meant more as it recognised the real us. A firm that thinks and acts differently, that never sits on the fence or slow to react to the market and clients. We pride ourselves on our ventures and alternative thinking and it has been great to be recognised for this.
Looking after LGBT issues such as surrogacy or HIV discrimination has always been different to other firms, and we have been awarded for our services in these areas as again we have always thought outside of the box. Then throw in advising on corporate bonds, equity financing, tech start-up and we move into another circle of innovation which we are proud to be leading in.
What are some of the challenges you have overcome along your journey?
Being a working mum! As many entrepreneurs will know, it is very hard juggling a family and a growing business but I have learned to take quality time off with my son so I can work hard at the firm when required.
My staff are wonderful and I have an amazing team, but you have to go through some bad eggs before you find the creme del a creme. I have had people trying to work on client matters outside of the firm as they became greedy and there have been staff members who are simply not up to scratch. Luckily for me, I have crafted now a loyal team with an open door policy, so we share everything and this ensures they each deliver the quality I expect and advise me immediately if anyone falls short.
Another challenge for me has been cash flow! Slow paying clients always causes issues and there were times in the early year’s when credit cards were an essential crutch to pay bills and wages, which was incredibly stressful but thankfully that’s a thing of the past.
What advice would you give to new mothers who are worried about returning to work?
Returning to work after maternity leave can cause anxiety especially if you’re worried about going back full time. Here are some options to discuss with your employer that might make the transition back into work a little easier:
You can apply for flexible working hours and make a solid case for you staying on with these terms. An employer must by law consider reasonable requests seriously but also has the complete discretion to deny your request.
You can apply for part time working. This could mean a career break and a drop in salary and you still need to make the case to your employer that they should grant this, once again they have the power to reject this.
Can you job share? Ask them to hire another part time you and between the two of you its shared salary and hours. Employers can welcome the idea of two dedicated people who are motivated because they are working less time, however they may feel it’s too difficult but it's worth a shot asking.
If none of these proposals work can you move careers and locate a better-suited role? Many mums are scared that potential employers will be anxious about taking on a new mum. You do not have to declare maternity or new parentage on your CV or at an interview but if you do the employer cannot by law discriminate against you as a result. However, in practice they can make positive sounds and refuse the job stating there was a better applicant so the law whilst a deterrent, is not fool proof.
How do you manage the work/life balance?
I always make time for family and loved ones whether it is putting the children to bed, taking a day off in the month to go shopping or a date night once a week. Otherwise work overtakes life and before you know it your children have grown up and your partner has lost sight of why they were with you.
I am a business owner, mum, wife, employer, but occasionally I need time to be a women who shops, enjoys a glass of wine or a gossip with my girlfriends
I also think it’s important to regularly switch your phone off (or at least put it on silent!) to avoid checking for emails and getting sucked into work. It is a really hard habit to get into but you will feel so much better for it.
What does a typical day for you entail?
Morning cuddles with my 5year old before giving him breakfast, dressing him and taking him to school. Then it’s the 30-minute train ride into London where I catch up on work emails. I am usually dealing with around 200-300 emails a day and have client matters to address as well as various meetings. I have a few high net worth clients that give me a grey hair each day and new businesses that want to pluck it for ideas which is the fun part of my time.
Fire fighting for clients is pretty standard and whilst I can’t break confidentiality some of the things I do would make great TV!
Once the working day is done, I might head to a networking event but if I’m lucky, then I’ll get home in time to put my little boy to bed.
How do you tune out and unwind?
I love socialising with friends and family over dinner and drinks and play dates. I make sure every weekend is booked with friends so we can all unwind and enjoy family time. I admit I like a little bit of thriller TV on Netflix to clear my mind also.
Where do you see yourself in the next couple of years?
I will continue to develop the business with a view to letting the younger directors step up so I can ease off a bit. That said, I have a thirst for the business and I love what I do, so I would always want to remain involved.
I hope that within the next couple of years, I can grow A City Law Firm with 2-3 more solicitors and hopefully own a freehold property to secure the company’s future from the expanding city.