Rob Bratby explains how he established a business during a pandemic and why becoming a freelance solicitor didn’t appeal
Setting up your own business can be the stuff of fantasy when you’re dreaming of work-life balance locked within the corporate structure of a law firm, and terrifying when actually making the decision to go for it. I felt a mixture of excitement and fear on launching Bratby Law in early July.
I was looking for a way of working where I could provide a high-quality service to clients while balancing the other demands of my life. In particular, working flexibly and being able to spend quality time with family. I needed blocks of time off, additional to annual leave, to be with my son in the holidays, as he lives abroad with his mother.
There are many lawyers, men and women, looking to balance the demands of work and family or other areas of their life; but traditional law firms sometimes struggle to meet the demand of people who take their careers seriously, want to work hard and do rewarding work, but want to do that flexibly.
I looked at traditional firms but it was challenging to meet their expectations of a senior role being full time in one place in the office. My clients are all around the globe. They expect me to be available but, for the most part, that’s by email, phone and Zoom rather than in an office in central London.
Law is very traditional and doesn’t like change for change’s sake, yet lockdown has shown there is another way. You don’t need much of the traditional infrastructure of a firm. Also, as a technology lawyer, I see how cloud services and artificial intelligence (AI) can automate a lot of tasks that would previously be done by junior lawyers and support staff.
For example, first drafts of standard documents can be created by AI-enabled precedent banks, and bank reconciliations can be done in real time between cloud-based accounting systems that talk directly to your bank.
The essence of a law firm comes down to client relationships, to listening and to helping to solve client problems, and you don’t need an expensive office or lots of staff to do that. I looked carefully at all the options but, ultimately, setting up my own firm was the best option for me.
While I’ve been actively planning this since November, I’ve always had it in mind as something I’d like to do. I grew up watching my mum and dad run their own business. But that’s not really possible when you start in law. What showed me I could do it, was setting up the Singapore office of Olswang in 2011, albeit with the backing of a large firm.
I think that everyone feels they’re not ready, that in some way you’re an imposter or it’s not the right time. There’s always a reason not to do it but sometimes you have to take a deep breath and dive in.
Initially, there are quite a lot of challenges to overcome. The first is financial. Moving from an established practice to your own business removes a safety net. There’s no guaranteed, regular income, no sick pay, no holiday pay, no financial cover between projects and so on. You are responsible for funding the business and your life.
Launching in lockdown meant my personal outgoings were reduced to the essentials, removing the pressure to immediately maintain my level of earnings and I’ve been able to search for cost effective ways to support the business, such as cloud-based IT and getting a virtual office. By virtual, I mean it’s my registered office address in a prestige building in Canary Wharf that receives mail and scans it to me remotely.
My client meetings are via Zoom, but it’s nice to have the option of going to the office and hiring by the hour a board room for meetings. And, as some people like to go to a place to work that’s separate from home, my setup also allows me to use it as a real office, but hired by the hour, day or week rather than as a fixed overhead.
The second challenge is finding the right corporate and regulatory structure. I decided on a limited company, which is in the process of being licensed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) as an alternative business structure (ABS). While ABSs were originally intended for multi-disciplinary practices (such as lawyers practising with accountants), with my wife, a non-lawyer, working as operations director for the business, we needed to seek authorisation as an ABS.
I considered other routes such as sole practitioner or freelance solicitor, but the former would make it difficult to grow the business. It also proved difficult to obtain professional indemnity insurance (PII) as a freelance solicitor as compared with a licensed ABS. While relatively unusual, the limited company structure, licensed as an ABS, gives us greater freedom and flexibility to grow the business than a
We can seek external growth capital and can provide alternative career pathways and incentive structures for both lawyer and non-lawyer future employees.
The third challenge is setting up the operational support systems such as accounting, time recording, billing, a website, email, document management system, library and so on. In each case, I reviewed what was available in the market and selected cloud-based systems that provided high security and availability, but did not require onsite servers, network or IT infrastructure.
Although in some cases (such as library and information support) there were no alternatives to specialised legal systems, in other areas I chose ‘best in market’ cloud solutions that were not necessarily aimed at the legal market, as they provide better functionality and lower cost.
Finally, and most importantly, there is the question of whether clients would be interested in continuing to instruct me. On launch, I found that those I’d had a solid work relationship with for a long time were happy to instruct me at my new firm. After a month, each client instructing me has known me for over 15 years. But the challenge is whether Bratby Law can compete and win new business. If we can, then the challenge becomes whether and how to effectively grow and scale the business.
All businesses have to choose how they want to compete – on scale, cost or specialism. As a small start-up boutique, I cannot compete with larger, more established firms on size; and while I seek to provide good value, I am not competing on the basis that I am the lowest cost provider. The choice we have made is to pick a narrow specialism (telecoms, digital and data), but then to seek to rival larger firms by being the best in that narrow area.
The corollary of this approach is to turn down work that doesn’t fit within our chosen specialism. I admit that it takes a lot of courage when starting up to tell someone approaching the firm that although we could do their work, it isn’t our specialism so they should go elsewhere.
On launch, I was lucky enough to have three clients who have made the business viable. One medium-sized client, who is going through some unusual business issues, has asked me to provide a general counsel service to them for the equivalent of two days a week. Knowing that I have a base level of recurring income to cover overheads and day-to-day outgoings is a huge relief and gives me breathing space to focus on establishing the firm’s reputation as a specialist and to grow new business.
Another consideration is PII and you need to allow at least three months to secure it. I used one of the larger brokers that was able to access the whole of the market and needed a detailed business plan. Even so, I ended up with only one viable quote. There were several very expensive quotes and some insurers were not interested in quoting for a start-up at this time – my broker tells me that lockdown has hardened the market.
My advice is to find a broker you can trust and provide them with as much information as you can. There are lists of brokers you can find through the law society: www.lawsociety.org.uk/topics/professional-indemnity-insurance/pii-guides-to-download.
I investigated launching as a freelance solicitor, but somewhat to my surprise, the broker was unable to obtain an insurance quote for this, let alone at a discount to traditional PII. Despite the regulatory reforms, it seems the insurance market hasn’t caught up – it was easier to get the right level of cover as a licensed body. On a personal level, I also had to replace the life and medical insurance that had previously been provided through my firm.
As a new firm reliant on cloud-based IT, our risk mitigation focus is on systems, information and data security. So we’ve spent a lot of time implementing and documenting an information and data security policy to ensure that we’re exceeding the requirements of the SRA, the Law Society, the Information Commissioner’s Office and GCHQ.
Although not required, we obtained a cyber essentials certificate, under a scheme set up by GCHQ to help small businesses become cyber secure, before commencing business. As part of the certification process, you can obtain a basic level of cyber insurance which is bundled with the certification. I would recommend it as essential for any firm wanting to operate in a virtual way using cloud technology.
As for work-life balance, I find myself working as hard as before, if not harder, and for less income, but I’m in the early stages. The tendency is to work all the time and I actively have to think about taking time off.
But running my own firm has the potential to deliver a good work-life balance in years to come. It certainly gives me flexibility to organise my life as I wish and to take the time I need to see my son in the holidays. And I find I’m more motivated and have ownership, not only of the business but of my life overall. It’s a liberating experience.
Rob Bratby is principal solicitor at Bratby Law, specialising in telecoms, digital and data law bratby.law