Start me up – why three small law firms are big successes

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,Strategy & Leadership] July 11, 2022

Three very small firms – Bicknell Law & Consulting, Forward IP and Fresh Legal Solutions – opened their virtual doors for business in the past few years. Anyone thinking of starting up or wondering why their small firm isn’t booming will gain some practical guidance from these firms’ stories, as Trish Carroll reports.

Jennifer Bicknell, the founder of Bicknell Law & Consulting, Matt Ward, the founder of Forward IP, and Liesel Pierce, the founder of Fresh Legal Solutions, have different stories to tell. Yet they share a lot in common about what drives success in their firms.

First, some backstory…

Jennifer Bicknell: Jennifer’s email signature reads, “Lawyer | Dispute Prevention Advisor”, and right there you have an incredible point of difference. Jennifer started her successful career at Minter Ellison. After 15 years she, and some Minters colleagues, picked up sticks in 2006 and opened the Australian office of English law firm, Kennedys. She loved being at Kennedys, and admired her partners, colleagues and clients. She had never thought about leaving until she did in 2015.

So, what happened? Jennifer went to a Business Chicks’ breakfast meeting and listened to Seth Godin speak. She had no idea who Seth Godin was, but he changed her life. Seth’s theme was “pick yourself” – a theme he explores in his book What To Do When It’s Your Turn [and it’s always your turn]. After immersing herself in more of Seth’s wisdom Jennifer knew she needed to pick herself. And just like that she left Kennedys in January 2015 and started her own firm the next month.

One of the reasons she left Kennedys was to be released from the constraints of being in someone else’s law firm. She wanted to create something that truly represented her and what she cares about. She’s certainly done that. Her firm stands out from the crowd – it’s built around Brand Jen.

Matt Ward: Matt is one of a small number of patent attorneys who is also qualified to practise as a lawyer. He joined a patent firm out of university and stayed for almost 14 years. Frustration drove Matt out. He was frustrated with the narrowness of the firm’s preferred work, its push to service offshore clients rather than Australian businesses, the type of volume work the firm pursued, and that, in his 14 years there, not one patent attorney was promoted to the equity partnership. Ouch!

Matt thought about his options and decided to start Forward IP in February 2018. He went from thinking about starting his firm to turning that into reality within a few weeks. He hasn’t looked back or been happier.

Liesel Pierce: Liesel joined a 10-person Sydney law firm after being admitted in 2012. She valued the general nature of the work and running a diverse range of matters from start to finish. For five years she loved it, had a great mentor and never gave a thought to leaving. After having her first baby the lack of flexibility about returning part-time was the catalyst for Liesel deciding to start Fresh Legal Solutions in 2016.

What is it like starting your own firm?

From a practical perspective, all three found that it was not hard at all. Jennifer’s biggest challenge was the horrified reaction of her accountant, partner and family! How could she walk away from the status, income and security? “Easily”, was her answer.

For Matt, in less than a month he had registered his business name, organised insurance, had all the software he needed hosted in the cloud, including special trademark software, a website done and was ready to go. One of Matt’s fears was how much time he would have to spend on admin. He has structured his practice so that admin consumes only a few hours a week.

It’s a similar story for Liesel and, since upgrading her practice management software and implementing online booking for clients, everything runs more efficiently and she also spends little time on admin.

How hard is it to find clients?

Not very. How so? They each have clear value propositions and communicate them well. Look at their websites to see what I mean.

The name of Matt’s firm, Forward IP, tells you what the firm does. Matt says he has done nothing special to find work. He was able to quickly secure a few Australian businesses who wanted to work with Matt at his former employer, but its conflicts policy and business strategy prevented them from working together. When he started Forward IP, they connected. His existing network in the technology space, combined with positive word of mouth and the referrals it engenders, has fuelled the business since opening in 2018.

Jennifer had a safety net from the start because she had expertise that one of Kennedys’ clients greatly valued. The firm and the client were happy to engage Jennifer via Kennedys. After a couple of years, Jennifer had another lightbulb moment while attending another Business Chicks event.  She realised the Kennedys arrangement was holding her back from going full throttle with her firm. Thankfully, her realisation coincided with Kennedys recruiting a team with the right expertise to take over from her.

This is when the real fun began. Jennifer thrives on diversity of thought, listening to other people’s stories and, like a bird, she sifts and sorts all this disparate information and creates her own magical nest. Her law firm is unlike any other. Jennifer is a performance coach and speaker. She runs workshops and training courses. Her passion is dispute prevention and helping managers prevent small workplace issues becoming big ones. Always a committed networker, she got involved with the National Association of Women in Construction in 1995 and gave it her all for 20 years.  She’s a life member now and this position is in recognition of the founders of NAWIC’s great community in empowering women. NAWIC is focused on one sector and Jennifer felt a need to move out of her comfort zone, so she joined Business Chicks in 2014.  Jennifer sums it up: “Best thing I ever did. I’ve found my tribe and think and do things that never would have happened without Business Chicks.”

Jennifer has done everything Business Chicks offers. When we spoke, she had just spent a week on Necker Island, Sir Richard Branson’s private home, where Business Chicks and Virgin Unite held a Leadership Gathering exclusively for Business Chicks where they heard from innovators who have disrupted entire industries. Business Chicks has held this Leadership Gathering every year since 2015.

Fresh Legal Solutions’ first client was a dishwasher repairman who was fixing Liesel’s dishwasher in her home and they got talking. He was buying a Fisher & Paykel franchise and engaged Liesel to advise him. He sold the franchise after a few years and has gone into other ventures, always with Liesel advising him.

Fresh Legal Solutions is a firm that focuses on the everyday legal needs of individuals, couples, families and small business, such as wills, enduring powers of attorney and guardianships, probate, deceased estate administration, home building disputes, franchise and small business advice and family law by consent work.

That first year, Liesel did nothing to promote her business – it was all word of mouth and all she hoped for was to be able to do a few hours of work a day. The family had plans to relocate interstate and that put a hold on developing the business further.  When the interstate move didn’t turn out to be permanent, the family returned to Sydney and Liesel decided to focus on Fresh Legal Solutions, although she hedged her bets by teaching first-year law subjects at Macquarie University as well.

After a couple of years she realised, a lot like Jennifer did, that continuing that work, despite loving it, was holding back Fresh Legal Solutions from growing. She needed to decide between Fresh Legal Solutions or academia.

To ramp up Fresh Legal Solutions, Liesel knew she needed to promote the firm, but how? At the recommendation of an electrician (yes, you read that correctly) Liesel joined a Northern Beaches business networking group. She admits to being sceptical at the start, but after attending a few events she found her groove and enjoys both the diversity of members and the referrals and other ideas it generates. Between this networking group and advertising in a local magazine every month, Liesel found over a few months that work levels were rising. She’s now so busy she’s engaged some of her former law students to help and is considering employing a graduate lawyer.

How are they feeling?

Invigorated. Inspired. Pleased. They are happy with their quality of life and their freedom to work flexibly as and when they like and for clients they enjoy working with. Many clients are now as much friends as they are clients.

Matt puts it well when he says: “We are living in an entrepreneurial age and being successful by being entrepreneurial is just as relevant for lawyers as it is for anyone else. The concern in the legal profession over the great resignation is well placed because people like me, Jen and Liesel were the frontrunners of the great resignation and there’s plenty more like us”.

What do they have in common?

Their law firms offer a service that is “need to have, not nice to have” and that imperative creates workflow. For example, workplace issues have never been more prevalent, family disputes and separations are always happening, and a sad impact of COVID-19 is that levels of separation have risen dramatically. In addition, virtually every business these days is a tech business, so IP and patents are booming.

The three firms have trusted expert networks they can call on to refer work outside their skillset to, or to work on together. They use professional networks very well – Jennifer’s network is huge and diverse; Liesel’s is embedded in the community of the Northern Beaches; and Matt’s is founded on Australian start-ups and tech companies.

A pricing model that is founded on giving clients certainty is another attribute they share. Forward IP and Fresh Legal Solutions use either fixed prices or capped fixed prices. Fixed pricing makes billing simple, too.

Jennifer takes a different approach, and unlike those 6-minute units so many firms use, she uses 1-minute units. To decrease admin, Matt doesn’t take money on account because he doesn’t want the hassle of dealing with a trust account, and that’s also true for Jennifer.

Making life easier for their clients is a priority. At Fresh Legal Solutions, Liesel is running a mobile law firm. She goes to her clients 90% of the time and at a time that suits them. She has an office at home and, if clients prefer to meet there, that’s what happens. Matt is similar – most of his work happens onsite at his clients’ premises or remotely.

Jennifer has done a fantastic job of making her email signature “Dispute Prevention Advisor” tangible by producing affordable online courses. For example, “How to have difficult conversations in the workplace – a lawyer’s guide to not needing a lawyer” costs $149.

Each of them has shown they know how to find and keep clients, have distinctive value propositions, generate a level of income they’re happy with and tick all the financial hygiene factors of having good cash flow and virtually no debtors.

Any advice for people thinking of starting up?

If you’re thinking of starting your own firm, here are some practical tips:

  • Be really good at what you do and be just as good at building trusted relationships with clients you like and who like you.
  • Keep your message simple, be clear about your value and have a network of experts to access as and when your clients need expertise outside your sphere.
  • Be clear and realistic about how much money you need to stay afloat.
  • Get comfortable with uncertainty, workloads can vary wildly, unpredictability is normal.
  • Retain an accountant who understands small law firms.
  • If you need marketing expertise, hire a consultant.
  • Take note of everything the Law Society’s mandatory legal practice management course provides and use that information, because when you do that course you don’t realise just how valuable it is.

A piece of advice Liesel has never forgotten from a trusted mentor in her former firm was, “Don’t let the client’s urgency become your urgency”. It’s a nice rethink of the squeaky-wheel metaphor.  Liesel’s mentor is still going strong aged in her early 70s, loves the law and her clients and has a massive service ethos.  All three of these legal entrepreneurs also share those attributes, and I expect they will also be enjoying life in the law for many years to come.

Trish Carroll is the principal of Galt Advisory, a consulting firm focused on helping firms and individuals devise and implement successful marketing and business strategies. Contact her at trish@galtadvisory.com.au.