Everyone has probably heard of the so-called ‘Great Resignation’ phenomenon. Boiled down to its nuts and bolts, the idea behind the GR purports that employees will collectively realise in the coming months, as borders open, that there’s more to life than work – and will resign en masse. To do what, you ask? It’s anyone’s guess. Travel, freelance, spend more time with their family, run their own business, all of the above, perhaps? There’s an equally loud school of thought that says there will be no such ‘wave’ of resignations. 

In any case, the proof will be in the data pudding soon enough. 

What we do know is that people want to work where they work best, where they can make a difference, and be meaningfully rewarded for it. What this looks like will differ from person to person. However, being an employee is not cutting it for many – whether it’s being forced to return to the office full-time, not being able to pitch fresh ideas because of rigid hierarchies, or just not feeling valued or appreciated. (We work hard on creating the opposite environment at Littles!)

For those in the law who aren’t heading off to backpack around Europe, this might mean quitting to go and set up your own business, or taking the plunge and purchasing shares with your current firm . I’ve done both, against a background of enormous change in the profession, and thought I’d share some insights. This is a blog, so I’m keeping it short – I’ll probably expand on a few ideas here further down the track. 

(I use the terms ‘partners’ and ‘shareholders’ interchangeably, but to be clear, I mean ‘shareholders’ in the context of an ILP. Anyone thinking of setting up a vanilla legal partnership in 2021 is, in my humble opinion, quite mad.)

First and foremost, you need to weigh the pros and cons against your ultimate goal. As I said, we all have different levers, which may make one path better suited to us than another. Here are some things to think about:  

  • Clients first, always and forever. If you aren’t getting offered a seat at the table in your current role because you don’t bring in business, or because you’re not a customer magnet, why do you think you’d be able to do it alone, without the resources of an existing firm behind you?

  • Do you want to own 100 per cent of a small pie, or a sliver of a much larger pie? If you’re leaving ‘employee’ life, the prospect of running your own business and making all the decisions can seem appealing. It’s true that having partners or other shareholders does require sharing power and decision-making (so serious control freaks need not apply). But it also involves sharing overheads, sharing risk, and hopefully sharing a bigger profit pool. You don’t have to be the sole repository of all wisdom – you can leverage on your partners’ expertise. Plus, as anyone who has run their own business will attest to, you can also take a stress-free holiday knowing that the whole show doesn’t rely solely on you.

  • What is your growth strategy? Keen observers of the legal business know that buying in – whether it is files, sponsorships, advertising, or humans via a BDM – will only get you so far. You live by the sword, you die by sword.  Are you bringing in people who can expand the business, and do you know what you need to do to keep them? The only growth strategy that works is where you empower all of your employees to build relationships with trusted networks and referrers, value them properly, and take meaningful measures to keep them. Or, put simply, you provide all employees with a clear pathway to becoming shareholders. This means that your recruitment strategy should boil down to engaging  ‘people like us’ – the kind of people you want to elevate to partnership. 

  • Once in, are you going to shut the gate or open it wider? If you’ve put all your blood, sweat and tears (not to mention substantial cash) into setting up a business,  don’t fall into the trap of asking why your star talent won’t just settle for what you consider to be a generous salary, rather than a share of the business. I know that if you feel like you’ve worked incredibly hard to get your seat at the table, your first priority might not be pulling up more chairs for others wanting to get there too.  However, in my experience, fostering up and comers in the firm, encouraging ambition and competition for partnership, and growing your business turnover through the strategic onboarding of new shareholders only increases the value of the business, and its shares.

  • Are you future-focussed? We want it to be said of Littles that it’s a law firm that’s a tech firm and a tech firm that’s a law firm. For me and my partners, that’s an uncontroversial statement. However, for many lawyers, this tech focus represents an unwelcome interference into ‘how things are done’. Are you going to have to be the tech evangelist? Are you going to surround yourself with PLUs? If you’re a tech luddite in 2021, then don’t read the next point, because you don’t need an exit strategy – it will be done for you.

  • What is your exit plan? Will you sell out, or earn out – or both? This means understanding exactly what it is that will make your firm, or make your shares valuable. 

I’ll wind up with a bit of ‘true and false’. These are the things that after 30 years of practice, I know in my bones to be fact: 

  • “If you build it, they will come.” FALSE. This is a myth in the modern legal profession. Get the clients first and build the minimum offering you need to service those clients ensuring seamless scalability. That means forgetting about the fancy fit-outs and the paralegals for now.

  • “It is not what you know, but who you know.” TRUE. Your value as a lawyer is measured on the strength of your networks. AI and legal technology are getting smarter all the time, reducing the need for technical experts, but they’re not great at fostering strong relationships (yet).

  • “Law firms are different to other businesses.” FALSE. The legal profession is not immune from the same changes occurring to all workplaces. BDMs, CRMs, TEs, and CAs are not just silly acronyms that only start-ups need bother with – you need to be across them and embrace them. (They couldn’t be more inane than ‘Associate’ and ‘Senior Associate’!) 

  • “Pay it forward.” (VERY) TRUE. The legal profession has been good to me, and I want others to experience the same success. Being able to mentor, teach, learn from and share wealth with the brilliant young people that have come through Littles over the years has been a privilege. This has meant – required – being able to put myself in the shoes of others, including those knocking at the door for partnership. Empathy is the common characteristic of the most successful lawyers – and the most successful business people. 

Finally, whether you are running your own firm, or buying shares, maintain a zero dickheads policy (that includes the so-called ‘brilliant’ ones) – and don’t become one. No one will want to work for you – or at least, not the ones you need. Speak plainly, constantly and critically evaluate your own performance. Argue your position strongly but accept the decision once made and get on board with it.

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