Three years ago, Jonathan Lea was working as a self-employed consultant solicitor, bringing in revenue of around £70,000 a year. This year, his fast-growing firm is on track to reach turnover of £1m. It even managed a 125 per cent increase in turnover during 2020 – a year that most law firms would rather forget.
Based in Haywards Heath in West Sussex, the Jonathan Lea Network provides business law services to an entrepreneurial client base. Initially, its clients were mainly fast-growing technology companies, but this has now broadened to include more established companies – and even a publicly listed client, with which the firm has a retainer for commercial contracts work.
For technology start-ups, the firm will get in early, advising on the first investment round, and build from there, advising on successive investment rounds. “We get our foot in the door, and then we get the subsequent work,” Lea explains. “And we keep recruiting and growing, to keep pace with some of these clients”.
He adds: “For example, we acted for a company in 2018, and have advised on every investment round since. It has now grown to 200 employees. The client does now work with larger firms, but they come back to us for certain things.” That includes investment rounds and shares-related tax advice, he says.
As well as advice relating to issues such as the Enterprise Investment Scheme and other shares-related matters, the firm offers a broad range of business services. Recent examples include advising on the management buy-out of a travel marketing PR agency; advising on a collateral warranty for a firm of architects; and the sale of a residential and commercial property company.
How did Lea get to this point? He qualified into the law in 2006, having completed a training contract at City firm Clyde & Co. Securing a training contract was difficult, he admits, and he sent around 50 applications. “I had a record number of interviews – about 30,” he recalls. But while he kept getting to the third round, it wasn’t until Clyde & Co that he made it across the finish line. “I had pretty much given up by the time I was interviewed at Clyde & Co,” he smiles. “I hadn’t slept or shaved.” But he got on well with the partners who interviewed him, and the knowledge he had gained from all those previous interviews ultimately paid off, as he was offered a training contract.
After qualifying, Lea worked at a number of different law firms, in the City and also in Cornwall, before becoming self-employed in 2003, working under the regulatory umbrella of another law firm. While working as a consultant, he set up a website, which became a key tool for attracting work. “Most law firms will write legal updates,” remarks Lea, “but if they write about an area, they don’t want to give too much away.
“But actually, the more you give away, the more trust you build, and the more likely people are to get in touch with you.”
Lea had an eye for picking topics that clients were interested in, and the site soon took off, generating leads. Initially, he referred many of these on to other law firms for a commission. But towards the end of 2017, he decided to take plunge, setting up his own office and employing staff.
How is the Jonathan Lea Network structured? It uses a hybrid model, combining an office-based “retained team” who are employed by the firm, with a network of self-employed consultants – a model Lea understands well, having worked that way himself. There are currently 15 staff in the retained team, including three qualified solicitors – the latest fully qualified recruit being a commercial litigator who recently joined to expand the firm’s contentious practice – plus a number of trainees and paralegals. The firm will soon move to a bigger office in Haywards Heath.
Lea sees the firm’s approach to more junior staff as something that sets it apart from other practices. Despite the regulatory burden, he is keen to offer training contracts to talented paralegals, and has offered five so far. He explains: “Offering training contracts is rewarding; we want to do more and more of that. Last year we took on three paralegals in September, October and November, when no one else was hiring juniors, and two of them are now starting training contracts with us.
“Now that they’ve come on and can take on more work, that gives us the opportunity to take on more paralegals, who can then also follow that route.”
Lea adds: “Because of the nature of the firm, we give juniors a lot of early responsibility. They get more hands-on experience that in other firms. Indeed, the trainee will often be the first person that the client will call up [because the client knows they are up to speed with the file].”
But while Lea plans to grow the retained team, he is also likely to increase the network of consultants, which currently number around 12. These experienced solicitors work remotely, and are based in various locations including Switzerland, Canada, and a vineyard of the Isle of Wight. Lea is about to take on another new consultant, based in Prague.
“They approach us mostly through the website,” he says, “and some of them have known us for several years. We’re not as impersonal as some of the other [consultancy model] firms. Our consultants like the entrepreneurial ethos of the firm”.
The consultants essentially fit into two camps. Firstly, those who are doing work – for example, specialist tax work – that the Jonathan Lea Network has fed to them. Second, those with their own client base, who work under the firm’s regulatory and insurance umbrella. “All of our consultants work on a fee-sharing basis,” Lea explains. “If you’re working for your own client, you get a bigger percentage. If it’s work you’ve got through us, you get a lower percentage.”
He adds: “We also do a 15% referral fee, if a consultant passes on work that they can’t do themselves to someone else in the firm. They get 15% of whatever is billed and paid. If you can refer a lot of work to people, that can be significant.”
Always looking for innovative new ways to win business, the firm recently added an e-commerce function to its website, selling legal “templates” for a plethora of different scenarios. The documents in the website’s “shop” span a broad spectrum of corporate, commercial, employment, civil litigation and property law, with titles such as “licence to sublet”; “employment contract”; “short form due diligence questionnaire”; “debt claim product pack”; and “heads of terms for the grant of commercial lease”.
These templates, which most solicitors might jealously guard as tools of their trade, can be purchased for modest sums, around the £10 mark. But it’s less about the small fry income from the template sales, and more about the chance to reel in much bigger fish, such as merger or corporate restructuring work.
“The template sales make a bit of money, but it’s more of a lead generation tool,” says Lea. While the firm does capture individual’s contact details when they make a purchase, this is not the main aim. “We don’t really do email marketing, because it doesn’t work,” he asserts. But the templates do draw clients to the website, and hence to the firm. “It’s inbound, passive marketing,” explains Lea. “It has generated quite a lot of fee-earning work. For example, it might be an accountant who’s purchased one or two products, and then when something comes along that they [need help with], they choose us, because they know us through the shop.”
The templates were an initiative that Lea had planned to do for a while, but that had been sitting on the backburner until the pandemic struck. “When lockdown hit, we had a bit more time on our hands, so we kept the juniors busy creating the templates,” he says. “There’s more information out there on the internet being given away in different ways, but not many regulated firms are doing it,” he notes.
Against the grain
As we come out of the pandemic, many law firms are now leaning towards a model that will see staff spending part of their week working from home. But the Jonathan Lea Network is taking a different approach.
While the firm’s retained staff worked from home during part of the pandemic, “it was a bit of a struggle”, he says, and – rules permitting, and with health and safety checks in place - the team preferred to work in the office as much as they could. “It definitely helps having everyone back in the office. Especially for the juniors in the office, you can talk to them… We’re not as efficient and we’re slower if we’re not in the office environment,” he insists.
Lea is therefore not planning on adopting a “working from home” model for retained staff. “We’ve made it clear if we recruit, if you have a job here, you’ll be working in the office – it’s a fundamental part of your job. You need to train up the juniors.
“If you want to work remotely, we might be able to do a separate deal for that, but it won’t be on the same terms,” he says.
The lawyer adds that he believes clients are more comfortable if they know that the team is working together in the office, with junior staff fully supported. But remote working does work well for the firm’s consultants, who are more experienced lawyers.
“I’m glad we’ve gone against the grain,” he insists. “If you want to do your best for clients, you need a [good] office space, and people working together.”
Lea and his team are looking forward to moving into their new office, which will still be based in Haywards Heath, but with more room for expansion. “We’ve spent some money kitting it out with sofas, and kitchen and so forth,” enthuses Lea. “It will be a nice environment that people want to come into.”
And there will be individual desks for staff. “We’ve tried hot desking, but actually people prefer their own desk,” he observes. “We’ll keep it an open plan space as much as possible, but with places where people can have meetings and calls.”
And the office vibe? “We’re pretty relaxed in that we don’t have a dress code, people wear shorts and T-shirts in the summer. You can bring the dog into the office,” says Lea.
“We’re an entrepreneurial, dynamic environment, but also supportive and friendly. We have team gatherings, and [when pandemic rules permit] go to the pub every last Friday of the month on payday. Last year we had a firm party that went down well - we try to get the social side going.”
What does Lea find the hardest part of being a law firm manager? “Managing people is difficult; and trying to get the right people, who are the right cultural fit at the outset,” he frowns. “I’ve learnt to ask more probing questions at interviews,” he adds. “I want people to show that they understand the business, and why we’re different to other firms. It needs to come across that they want to join you because of what you’re doing as a business, rather than just what you’re offering as a salary.”
Managing the firm through the pandemic was also difficult; but there was a silver lining. “It’s been hard for the business throughout the pandemic and the lockdown restrictions,” Lea admits. “But the more I have involved staff, and got them to suggest ways of dealing with things, the more the junior staff have been able to get more confident, and feel more like part of the business.”
Those junior staff will no doubt be at the heart of the firm’s strategy as its expansion continues in the year ahead.
Rachel Rothwell is a freelance journalist...