Launching into the unknown
Once described as a sensible rebel, Sarah Schütte explains why she decided to put this into action and set up her own specialist law firm
To mash up a quotation of lunar proportions as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landings, are you considering taking one giant step to leave employment or partnership and become a freelance lawyer (or “independent lawyer”, in Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) terminology)? Congratulations for even thinking about it. Will you take that step though? I did. In February 2014, I launched Schutte Consulting Limited (SCL) a niche firm offering legal consultancy and training to the construction and engineering industry. SCL’s recent fifth birthday was a celebratory milestone allowing me to reflect on its success so far. I thought back to the beginning, to the kernel of the idea of taking the giant step into the unknown. In summer 2013, marking the end of my second maternity leave, I was happily employed in-house with a wide variety of cross-departmental clients who valued my pragmatic legally-robust advice and support. I had survived two restructurings which had reduced our team from six to two. I had two children under the age of four; a (then) husband who was a partner in a City law firm; and my parents were on-hand, active and newly-retired. But something was missing in my career: the factor of challenge. I had never stood still. I needed ‘more’; more responsibility, more accountability, more voice and – yes – more kudos. I had plateaued in a hierarchical structure. At a time when we were on the cusp of a new working revolution there was a tentative nod to flexible working. This ticked a box but in reality it was worrisome (like many parents I knew, once the children were in bed the laptop was switched back on). Ever optimistic, I returned to work with new vigour figuring that the smaller team would naturally allow this ‘more’ to emerge and I could dispel the annoyances by focusing on providing great client service. But only a few weeks later I was knocked off my bike going home one Monday evening. Several fractures, two strapped-up arms, a chipped front tooth and a taxi van to take me and my twisted bike home, I lay in bed doped up on giant Nurofen (too much of a control freak to take the morphine). The grandparents stepped up marvellously and we hired a full-time nannycum-carer. I was lucky my brain had not been injured. I found new respect for my thought processes and put the enforced convalescence to good use. My team leader was very understanding and he wanted me back. Autumn came and went; Christmas approached. And I realised I could get ‘more’ - but I would have to leave my job to do so. I met my team leader (a man I admired and from whom I had learnt much). He anticipated my decision, offered more time off, extended physiotherapy and other kindnesses. But my mind was made up. So what finally prompted me to take the leap? The accident with its enforced time off? Physical and mental distance from the office? Time with the children? In truth, it was all of these things. And I always had a streak of bloody mindedness and self-belief (coupled with a brake on recklessness). Someone once described me as a “sensible rebel”. It was time to put this into action. 2014 began.
In six weeks I sketched visual plans so that I had focus, structure and a timeline. Colour appeals to me so I drew ideas with a rainbow of felt-tipped pens and ended up with several pieces of A4 and stuck them together as the spidery veins took shape:
— What would Schutte Consulting offer?
— Who would I call? How was I going to ‘sell’?
— How could I differentiate myself?
— What was I passionate about?
— What did I want to do in the first month, three months, six months?
— How would I finance this venture? SCL was a venture not a madcap scheme. Planning reinforced this: I had long appreciated and advocated the integral part planning plays in a project and it remains a fundamental part of our practice and advice.
TECHNICAL EXPERTISE IS CRITICAL
Technical expertise has to be a given in our profession. I am an SRA-regulated lawyer and have been a solicitor advocate since 2007 (among other accreditations). SCL’s aim, as our website says, is to “make law work for the construction and engineering industry”. It took me some time to arrive at this simple phrase – which can be read in different ways. Committing to it was a key decision. Our ethos is that law sets the framework for behaviours; and contracts rule relationships; but law is, and has to be seen to be, purposive and helpful. SCL’s clients value that I translate the gobbledygook into the understandable –then draft it to support them to deliver projects, including palatable ways to tackle inevitable differences in opinion. Also, my time in-house had taught me about corporate risk: SCL’s risk management balances the careful without being overly-bureaucratic and I have an excellent long-term relationship with our PI broker and insurer. When you work for yourself, you can never stand still (and rarely take a true break). If you are a character of that nature, you will naturally enjoy this aspect, but I have friends and colleagues who cannot countenance the agility that self-employment demands (it is not really ‘flexible’, it is ‘more’). Others relish the idea, then falter at the lack of regular income or the slight craziness the lack of structure can bring. A small but growing minority I know love to work for themselves, and we support and uphold each other through freelancing peaks and troughs. I relish quiet, calm thinking time, but some find that difficult. Shared office facilities could benefit more extrovert characters but cost needs to be factored in. I organise client meetings in town so I can get out; fortunately, I find site meetings invaluable. Financial worries are natural, but it helped me to think of it as a risk management item. I broached it with prospective clients determined to find a win-win for us both (admittedly, though very rarely, I have said, “my children need to eat” to make a real-life point in a semiserious way). SCL has a short (15-day) payment term and a user-friendly set of terms and conditions. It works; and guess what? My PI insurer is happy too. So what’s next after five years? I went back to my felttipped ideas map and two things emerged. First, SCL is known for its niche practice in project management and law, and the spidery vein of ‘PM qualification’ remains untapped. Second, I have sought to alter the narrative on legal disputes to be as much about ‘problem-solving’, as ‘rights and wrongs’; so ‘mediation accreditation’ on the map stands out. There is scope for investigation and planning during the rest of 2019 and, depending on the outcomes, initiation of one or both in 2020.
EXPANSION COMES CALLING SCL
is also about to embark on expansion: the biggest downside of independence has been continuous sleep deprivation as I try to keep up with servicing clients and managing the admin. My accountant has been a superstar with my paper ledger, but digital tax now forces us to adopt new ways of working. Also, with a healthy order book of training workshops for the rest of 2019 and into 2020, and some chunky projects and litigation on the horizon, SCL needs a more flexible IT system and a more systematic filing, archiving and library system. I have recently interviewed for an office manager and for IT support (so that I can sleep more!). I also realise I need to release more time for me to do the things I’m good at like client care, oversight and risk management. I have a couple of sidekicks who can undertake the majority of the output a client requires but I want to delegate the things I need to do for compliance and good practice administration to those who have this professional skill set (which I tackle after midnight because our UK clients are in bed). They have to be done and you can’t fall behind on your VAT! I’m also keen to engage those in my local community. It’s a win-win. But it’s another investment; and another giant leap.