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We were in a pub! Yes, one of those establishments where people used to socialise. Do you remember?
It was the autumn of 2010. Alan and I had already made the emotional decision to separate from our former firm. It wasn’t that they weren’t a nice bunch. Far from it, there were some excellent individuals and very talented lawyers. It was more about the fact that life in what I might describe as the “legal tanker” was not what either of us had wanted. We couldn’t make quick decisions. This lack of agility was something we felt was impacting our ability to progress the family department. We needed to feel as though our hand was truly on the tiller, that we could change direction as we needed rather than going through layers of decision-making and competing with other departments and their respective needs and interests.
A proposal was on the table to move elsewhere, but it did not feel right. We would just be changing one name for another with all the internal politics and competing interests which blight most firms. But, having made the emotional leap, what were we to do? The answer lay in trusting ourselves. Trusting our ability to make the right decision for our futures and to take responsibility for our actions. I readily accept that dipping into Susan Jeffreys’ Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway had given me the strength I needed to take control of what I did with my life.
The planning had been done for the option we had been considering. Could we do it ourselves? Damn right we could! In a conversation with a trusted adviser, we were given sound advice to make sure that everything was in place before handing in our notice. That call took place on a Friday, and on Monday – with a full tank of enthusiasm – notices were served and our journey started. That was a whirlwind lasting 5 months (I remember the relief of my wife having a friend over from Australia which meant that I could even spend time on Christmas Day to do some more drafting on the website copy). I was warned about the reality of 16 to 18-hour days for months on end. But it was fun. It was exciting. And it led to Family Law Partners opening on 1 April 2010. Of the five team members who walked through our new serviced office door that day, four are still with us: Miriam who is now our Practice Director and Lucy Fowler who is presently on maternity leave but who is our Innovation and Technology Manager. The fifth realised teaching was their vocation and not the law!
I came across some old planning notes in Dropbox a few weeks ago and a smile broke out when I realised the vision we had at that time when it was still just a twinkle in our eyes, was one that we have not just put into effect, but iterated and improved.
The starting point was to really focus on the fact that dispute resolution had to be at the core of what we did. We are not naïve enough to think that every case is suited to the softer DR processes, but the fact remains that there are far too many cases litigated by lawyers who themselves are driven by financial targets. We still see cases where proceedings are issued on, literally, day one when other, bespoke options are much more likely to be beneficial to the other firm’s client and the family as a whole.
Helpfully, our new venture coincided with a number of respected local family lawyers moving away from the firms they were at to set up specialist family law firms. There was a collective spirit. A genuine desire to try and deal with cases differently. Mutual support, and at the heart, a belief that the focus should be on DR. Brighton became a respected hub for collaborative work because that was the energy, trust and enthusiasm of a critical mass of family lawyers who saw that method as a really beneficial way of helping families in the right cases.
Our soft landing at Regus on 1 April 2011 (with a beautiful, branded cake from our trusted marketing consultants), was followed a year after we had started with a move to our present home in Clifton Mews in Brighton. We had the ability to design a DR space from a blank canvas and it’s been a hub of dispute resolution work since then.
As we celebrate our 10th birthday this month, I wanted to share some of my personal reflections:
Developing new relationships with firms that we would never have thought would instruct us (because of the multi-disciplinary nature of the firms) helped forge new friendships and business relationships. Nevertheless, the driver in referring work out has not been what is best for us, but how best to serve our clients. Indeed, it is one of our values at the heart of every decision we make as a firm. Client’s first. Always.
Identifying the best possible advice for external support whether in relation to regulatory work, marketing, accountancy or, as we have done over the last three years bringing in a fantastic CEO, to support the business and the team has been vital. Know your limitations and bring in those from outside with the right skills and shared passion.
All the time we had our eye on growth. Not growth for the sake of it, but growth based on creating opportunities for talented lawyers who shared our vision, whether it be joining us on a consultant basis or joining a firm where the values drive the decisions – rather than the focus being on the unattainable daily grind of 5.5 to 6 hours chargeable time, plus BD on top. The key is the right people. If they are not on the right seat or the right bus then you have to be bold enough to have the conversation for you and for them. We’ve done that and whilst it’s hard we have always done so with the best interest of the firm at heart.
Recognising that each of the team needs time to develop and that it can be done with a sensible financial target. And once again, at the heart of everything we do, is dispute resolution. We don’t ask for a war and peace plan as to whether or not there was a business case for a particular DR badge. We positively offer the chance to train every lawyer in the team. Recognising that their ability to obtain a dispute resolution qualification would improve how they were able to work for our clients. See, client’s first. Always! As of today, we have 5 mediators, 10 collaborative lawyers, a hybrid mediator and an arbitrator which I think is testament to our vision and the fact that DR has to be in our team members’ DNA (or a desire to become trained).
At the start if you had asked us to commit to how we would grow it would have been through the consultant model we operate. Nevertheless, sensible advice from our accountants got us to take those particular blinkers off to look at internal growth alongside this. Being joined by former colleagues and individuals we know have the same vision and values has been a vital part of our success, as has bringing in new people who have been attracted to what we do and how we do it. And throughout our growth, not a penny spent on recruitment consultants.
It was always about much more than creating a family law firm out of a historic department in a multi-discipline firm. It was about a business, it was about how we could innovate to improve how family law is delivered. It was about seeing opportunities and taking sensible risks when the right opportunities presented themselves. It was about believing in who we were and what we were able to offer clients.
Personally, one of the best decisions I’ve made is to support Alan in the development of his suite of innovative tools to help clients and family lawyers alike. I am sure many people have heard of and use Engage but there is much, much more coming in the Family Law Lab suite, including a fantastic tool to enable prospective clients to assess their suitability for which DR process model is likely to suit them. AI and family law combining to provide access to choices and justice, ensuring that clients are placed with the lawyers that will make the right decisions for them not for the lawyer’s balance sheet. And significantly, seeing Alan become an innovator, a thought leader, a person immersed in data, tech, coding, branding and UX has been a joy to watch and rewarding to be part of. Equally, him supporting me in weekly sittings as a DDJ has shown his trust in me and his recognition that just as he is nourished by his newfound career in legal tech, I am nourished by the experience on the district bench. We support one another. We trust one another. I even think we like one another!
So, as we blow out the candles on our 10th birthday cake, what are the valuable lessons we’ve learned?
And most of all enjoy the journey, here’s to the next 10 years.