Karyn Watt set up a practice aiming to offer a quality commercial service for clients who might not have the budget to go to larger firms
When you can count Robert Maxwell as a former boss and practise as a sole partner competing in the fierce market for Edinburgh’s commercial clientele, it might be safe to assume that you would develop an unsparing attitude to the vagaries of mercantile life.

Instead, Karyn Watt operates a simple philosophy, and one borne of personal experience, namely to offer advice from the client’s perspective, and provide a service meeting the deadlines and budgets they have to work to and ensuring value for money from the legal services they buy in.  Time spent as Robert Maxwell’s in-house legal adviser taught her that much.

“Buying-in legal services showed me what it’s like to be a client.  Lawyers who have only ever been in private practice, and who have never worn a commercial hat might not have the perspective of ‘if it was my money, what would I do?’ You learn to expect value for money from the legal services you are buying.  As part of an in-house team, you have to work closely with other professionals and think more laterally.”

Her firm has established a niche market servicing, along with established clients, the needs of small and newly established businesses, many of whom connect more readily to someone who is obviously aware of the challenges of establishing a fledgling business venture.  Domestic conveyancing is offered largely as a spin-off to commercial clients.  In fact, at a time when omni-competence seems to be going out of fashion, Karyn Watt handles most areas apart from criminal work.

“I have a very personal philosophy, which is to get inside the mind of clients and give them the sort of advice I would like to receive.  I see my role as a solution seeker, trying to find practical results, rather than the Ivory Tower lawyer decreeing what the law is.  When setting up on my own, I was clear about wanting to offer a quality commercial legal service for clients not necessarily having the budget to go to bigger firms.”

For all the emphasis put on firms developing marketing strategies, Karyn Watt maintains that most business is won by word of mouth and stems from developing a good rapport with clients.

“The door here is always open.  I can’t just operate within ‘office hours’, many of my clients would find it hard to find the time to come and see me if I was available only during the course of a routine day.”

Her irreverent attitude extends to delighting in describing how her offices in Leith may have originally intended to be used as a “sauna” and enjoys a wry smile when she receives correspondence addressed to “Dear Madam”.

So what advice would she proffer to anyone thinking of going it alone?  “It’s daunting to start off with and you have to retain a great faith in your own abilities and surround yourself with a supportive staff.  To start with I had some doubts.  In the early days I thought life is too short, I could only work so many hours.  I’m glad I persevered; the firm is growing every year and that is very satisfying.”

In a practical sense, how would someone setting up on their own avoid the pitfalls of restrictive covenants and their attendant prohibition of luring clients?

“I believe you never own clients.  The clients will seek advice from the lawyer they want to use.  The client’s choice must be paramount.  But there isn’t the same sense of loyalty from clients and you must keep providing a good service.”

So when does a sole practitioner manage a holiday?  “Obviously major commercial decisions can’t be taken in my absence and I haven’t had a long holiday for four years where I have been able to get away from it all completely, though it isn’t easy to get hold of me at the top of a ski slope.”

Going it alone also means Karyn Watt can steer clear of the problems that inevitably confront all partnerships at some stage.  “I wouldn’t eliminate the possibility of engaging partners at some time in the future.  However; it would be important for any partner to be well-matched.  Like a marriage, it can be messy if you prove incompatible and want to get out.  I enjoy having the freedom to build up the practice according to my own vision.

“A major advantage of being a sole partner lies in the ability to make swift decisions without the need for lengthy consultation and committee decisions.”

Yet the demands on a single practitioner’s time must surely leave her, at least occasionally, nostalgic for the protective strait-jacket of a partnership.

“I could never have stamped my own image within a multi-partner organisation.  People tend to become indoctrinated in the philosophy of large firms, with less opportunity to develop a personality and make their mark with clients.

“There are never enough hours. I have to be finance director, marketing consultant, office manager and undertake all the assorted chores of the day.  Given all that it takes to run an office it would be very hard if I had a family to look after as well.  I am amazed at female colleagues who manage to juggle all these factors.”

For some clients an important aspect of Karyn Watt’s service is the fact of seeing a female solicitor: “Women setting up in business are often pleased to speak with someone who can see things from their perspective.  They tend to think ‘she’ll understand’.”

Nevertheless, she detects there are still some impediments to women succeeding, particularly in Edinburgh.  “There is still something of an old boys network, and unless you come up through the ranks it can be difficult to break in”.

Karyn Watt was also the first female chairperson of Solaw, an organisation representing sole practitioners.  As well as being a valuable forum for “exchange of ideas and to use as a sounding board”, one of their primary goals remains abolition of an ongoing discrimination against sole practitioners by banks and building societies, who won’t allow them to do security work.  “It tends to be English banks and building societies, and possibly reflects problems they have had.  There are a substantial amount of sole practitioners operating in Scotland; the banks’ attitude casts a doubt on all our integrity and implements a policy that prevents us from carrying out an all-round service for our clients.”

Five years on from its establishment, Karyn Watt feels confident that her name is recognised and established.  But will there really be room for the sole practitioner in a market place where so much is made of size.  “I think the trend is heading towards those who have established a niche market or big firms offering the complete package.

“Sole practitioners who are only doing domestic conveyancing will find it hard to survive, unless they are turning over huge volume. They will have to cut furiously at their fees in order to compete or offer a special service.”

For all that is said about the provision of legal services, there is much to suggest that the success of her five-year venture is as much down to marketing a personality as establishing a reputation for giving a high standard of legal advice.  “Unless you have something special to sell, unless you are offering a service that others aren’t, then it is difficult to be competitive.”

Back to Robert Maxwell, and Karyn Watt is guarded, even now, about divulging details of events from that time.  Chinese Walls are hard to dismantle.  She does reveal that working as Group Commercial Lawyer at the Mirror Building was the opportunity of a lifetime, but denies having any specialist interest in pension law.  “That was another department.  Love him or hate him, ‘RM’ certainly was a larger than life character.  Unfortunately nowadays I no longer get picked up by helicopter to go to work”.

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