In the month of International Women’s Day, Cathy Donald and Emma Reid, who set up their own practice a year ago, describe their experience and what they have learned

It may be 2017, a time when women dominate the legal profession at entry level, yet it is still rare to find two women running a legal practice. We established our specialist employment law firm, Ergo Law, in January 2016 with the aim of achieving balance between work and life as well as driving our careers forward. Here we reflect on our first year in business, what we have learned as a new legal startup, and our experience as female business owners.

Ergo Law is one year old – how has the first year been?

Cathy: It’s been very positive, very busy, a steep learning curve in terms of the business of running a law firm.

Emma: If you’d told us what we would achieve and learn a year ago, I think we would both have been quite surprised! This year has been about creating our brand, exploring the market and nurturing our new business. We have really enjoyed it and are relieved to find that our instinct that there was room in the market for this type of firm was correct. We are making plans for the future with even more confidence than we did a year ago.

Why did you decide to set up on your own?

Cathy: We knew each other well and were confident in our shared outlook and complementary strengths. We both wanted a more flexible working life, while providing a high-quality and bespoke level of service to clients. Our practice area provides insight into other ways of working and there is no doubt that employees are demanding and generally finding increased flexibility. Law firms utilise new technologies to be responsive to clients’ needs – why not also use that technology for the benefit of employees? Ultimately, we wanted to run a firm our own way, without having to compromise on our values and priorities.

Emma: And we just thought, “We can do this.” Fellow solicitors have said it is a brave thing to do, but I only realised people viewed it in that way when they told us. To us it was an exciting opportunity and, as a startup, we have felt very supported and encouraged by colleagues in the profession. As we give employment law advice, it’s great to be running a business in a way which gives us a work-life balance that many employees aspire to. We both work four days a week. Sometimes they are long days or we work on “days off”, but we’ve found that when you are putting in the extra hours and doing it for yourself, there is a greater sense of responsibility but much less stress.

What have you learned?

Cathy: A lot. We would both say that the business of providing legal advice to clients is the easier part of running a law firm. For me, the particular challenge has been recognising the importance of social media for any business, and getting more comfortable with promoting our business digitally. That said, there is great support out there, for example Business Gateway provided us with digital media training. We use cloud-based document management and time-recording/accounting systems which minimise time spent on administrative tasks. Also, other professionals have been encouraging and generous with their time and support, such as our accountants, Haines Watts, who have gone above and beyond simply providing accountancy advice.

Emma: You only have to Google “employment lawyer Edinburgh” to see how competitive the market is. We’ve learned that we must stand out from the crowd. One of our first decisions was whether to put our own headshots on our home page or to use generic, more corporate, images. Ultimately, we decided that it was important for our business to have a human face – new clients pick up the phone to us and see who they are speaking with. Being accessible to clients is important, as is a good headshot and a patient photographer!

We both trained and worked at large firms where we were taught the importance of networking, and we’ve really put that into practice. Our business often comes from unexpected places, such as referrals from our competitors – that support is always a great compliment.

What should anyone else know if they are thinking of setting up a practice?

Emma: One of the first things we did was a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis – it’s a standard part of a business plan but really helps to get your ideas down on paper and to see where you need to develop your plan. This also forces you to think about where your business will come from and to envisage it as a reality rather than just a nice idea. I’d recommend considering alternative ways of working – do you really need city centre offices? Can you outsource administrative support? It’s a wonderful opportunity to start from scratch and be creative.

Cathy: Think about where your business will come from, how to target those clients and what type of service you intend to provide. Consider how you can differentiate yourself from similar firms in the market. We’d also recommend speaking to the Law Society of Scotland and professional indemnity providers at an early stage to understand some of the regulatory requirements and costs involved. Lawyers don’t necessarily regard themselves as business people, but don’t forget that all the skills you have in assessing risk, planning and organisation and yes, even creative thinking, all come in handy as a business owner. Ultimately there may be some risk in setting up on your own but, as the downturn has taught us, there may be false comfort in remaining an employee. At least if you are running your own firm, you have some control over decisions concerning your own future.

Emma: We can’t overstate the importance of potential clients being able to find you on Google – nor the complexity involved in achieving that. We’d recommend that you sign up for an SEO training session straight away (Business Gateway does good ones), and before you begin work on your website if possible. We would have found it helpful to understand the nuances of SEO at an early stage. We’ve watched our webpage climb from undetectable by Google to page 1 for key search terms, but it has taken hard work, perseverance and close monitoring by us.

What are you proudest of?

Cathy: We knew the kind of law firm we wanted to run, and the type of service we wanted to provide. We set out our values on our website – compassion, spirit and high quality legal advice, and I think we are living up to that. We are proud that we set up the firm that we both wanted to work for, and that we have turned that into a viable business.

What does the future hold?

Emma: We are focused on building our brand and growing our business while retaining our boutique identity. No doubt, there seems to be change on the horizon for lawyers. Women in law is a hot topic, as is flexible working and less conventional law offices. Several solicitors have told us that they find our approach inspiring. We think that there will be more people who decide to carve their own path in a similar way as we have done and we look forward to hearing about their stories too.  

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