Ex-City lawyer finds flexible law firm and writes a film
This week we speak to Laurence Relton, who had been a corporate lawyer at various City firms until he left last year to join Lawyers Direct. Lawyers Direct is a virtual law firm (see our previous comment on it here), which means that all its lawyers work from home. We wanted to find out first hand what this is like and how it compares to the City….
mtl: Let’s start at the beginning. Take us through your legal career.
Laurence: I studied Law with Italian at Sussex University and graduated in the early nineties when training contracts were not easy to come by. So I decided to go out to Italy and get some work experience out there. I joined Brosio Casati e Associati (Allen & Overy) in Milan. That was good fun and a pretty good lifestyle. However, I eventually went back to London, and to Withers, for a training contract.
On qualification I went to US firm Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal (as a corporate lawyer) because I felt I would enjoy the dynamic environment of a small US office. That was a great place to work. It was a Chicago-based firm, which meant that the working culture wasn’t quite as punishing as that reputed to exist at New York firms in London. The hierarchy was really flat and the people were extremely sociable. I did well because I was enjoying myself. However, the office was struggling to get sufficient work and, eventually, the firm pulled out of London.
So then, because the entrepreneurial atmosphere of a US firm starting up in London still appealed to me, I went to Buchanan Ingersoll. However, within a few years, they pulled out too! I started to feel like a bit of a Jonah, with every firm I joined failing within a few years! In reality, the problem was that many US firms at that time had underestimated the difficulty of setting up in London.
By that time, I was starting to seriously doubt by career choice. Did I really want to be a lawyer for the rest of my life? Maybe, but I also had other interests and was not getting nearly enough time for them. I had been part of The Ornate Johnsons, a comedy group, for some time, putting on a number of shows, had done some writing for TV through that, and had started writing a film.
But I didn’t quite have the nerve to leave the law. So, battling with the internal demons of going for interviews for jobs that I really didn’t think I wanted, I started the process again. I got a job at Watson Farley & Williams and stayed there for nearly three years.
After some time there, my little internal demons started their work again. WFW were a great group of people, and on many levels I really enjoyed my time there. Personally, though, I was just finding it increasingly difficult handling the culture of a law firm. I wanted to be getting on with projects outside of work, but, as would happen with any firm, I wasn’t master of my own time. And because of the City culture, I would keep these interest of mine firmly hidden. Understandably, a firm wants you for your legal brain, and can’t get too excited about a sketch you’ve written. This internal tension was beginning to get to me. Maybe I exaggerated in my mind this work/interests separation in the City. The Ornate Johnsons recently had a twelve night run at The Soho Theatre and 29 people came down from WFW to see it one night. I was genuinely touched.
Graduated Sussex (Law with Italian)
LPC at College of Law
1994 – 1996 Paralegal at Brosio Casati e Associati (Allen & Overy), Milan
Commenced training contract at Withers
Qualified as corporate lawyer and joined Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal
Joined Buchanan Ingersoll
Joined Watson Farley & Williams
Joined Lawyers Direct
I decided to save up with a view to taking a year out to focus on writing, in the hope that it might take off. That might sound crazily optimistic but I had to give it a go and I did have a few tiny leads.
Fortunately, however, just before I jumped ship completely, I heard about Lawyers Direct through a friend. It sounded very interesting – the idea that you could work from home, control the amount of time you spend working and earn considerably more per hour. In fact, it sounded perfect for someone who wanted more time to spend on other things – a great opportunity to get out and experiment at the same time as maintaining a decent income. I realised that there were probably downsides – I was concerned about lack of support and a constant stream of work, but for someone who was considering giving up the whole thing anyway, it seemed to be worth a shot.
So here I am.
mtl: And how is it?
Laurence: It is incredible. I can’t really emphasise that enough. It really is the perfect solution for me. I now love my job. I never thought I would say that about a legal role.
I should say, however, that it took a while for me to get going. Even though I brought my own clients with me (one of the benefits of having been at US firms was that they tend to encourage you to do more marketing and get your own clients), my income still halved in the first six months. But then it started to pick up again and now I’m earning a similar amount to the salary I left behind at Watson Farley. The big difference is that I manage my own time, cut out the commute, and can fit in other things.
mtl: Tell us a bit more about how Lawyers Direct works. It sounds great but surely the support is not the same as at a City firm and, at the end of the day, you still have clients, and they can still be demanding – you can’t tell them to wait while you finish writing the next scene of your film….
Laurence: True. That’s one thing you can’t escape – clients!
However, I find my relationship with them is very different now. Some of them have become friends. I’m more in charge, so I can control the process more easily. Of course, there are occasions when things have to be turned around urgently and I’ll have to work through the evening. That’s fine, I’ll just take the next morning off to do something else, if I need to.
I should make it clear that Lawyers Direct is not an easy option. It is a law firm and people work hard. I often work in the evening or sometimes at weekends, but I feel very different about doing it because I’m so much more in control. If I am working at weekends or evenings, it’s more because I want to free up other time to get on with my other projects.
The real change is that I no longer resent the job. The deal here seems to work much better for everyone. Clients are happy because they are getting work done at much lower hourly rates than City firms. Lawyers are happy because they get a cut of the hourly rate (70-80%), which for me means I get paid at between £130-160 per hour. It was more like £40 per hour in the City. And the owners of Lawyers Direct are happy because they get their cut, enabling them to market the firm, bring in clients and run an efficient central administration office.
In terms of support, I have everything I need. The only thing that differs is that I have to sort out my own practising certificate. That’s it. There is a central secretarial service, training sessions to keep up the CPD points and a central administration dealing with billing and professional insurance. There’s also a network of around 50 lawyers for support. Ok, it’s not the same as just wandering into a colleague’s office for a chat but there is still a good level of collegiality.
The quality of the work is pretty good, too. The deals are generally smaller but the issues are the same. Basically, it’s great.
mtl: Are you getting time for your other interests?
Laurence: Yes, I am making time. And that’s easier because I don’t have to commute anymore and I can decide to take a day out of law whenever I need to, work permitting. I wrote and acted in the show at the Soho Theatre in London, which has led to some interest from the BBC, which we are pursuing. My film has also had some interest, believe it or not, and I now have an agent in the UK and in Hollywood! The film is being sent to some high profile actors in the US, so fingers crossed that it will go somewhere.
I’ve had to work hard to bring in a decent income at Lawyers Direct at the same time as seriously pursuing my other interests, but it would never have been possible at a traditional firm. People here are really supportive of lawyers who have other interests, that’s why many of them come here. Whether it’s family, writing, or building your own house, this is a great place to be if you want to give something else in your life a lot of time.
mtl: Do you think it would be possible to go back to traditional private practice, if you wanted to?
Laurence: Yes, though I can’t see me taking up that option. I hope putting that in print isn’t tantamount to career suicide, in case I ever have to go back! There was one lawyer who went back into a mainstream firm. She was a tax lawyer and wasn’t getting as much work as she wanted here and so had to go back to the steady income of a normal job. But that’s rare. Most people build up a steady income very quickly.
mtl: So what would your advice be to other lawyers considering their options?
Laurence: Consider Lawyers Direct! Sorry, I know this interview has read a bit like a sales pitch. I believe the firm gets a lot of applications, so you have to have a very strong background and, ideally, a client following, in order to be considered. You also have to be at least five years qualified.
It’s not for everyone. Your income may vary to begin with and some people might miss the office environment. But there’s only one thing I’m missing right now: air-con!
mtl: Indeed. Laurence Relton, thank you very much for speaking to us and good luck at Lawyers Direct and with your film.
To find out more about Lawyers Direct, click on the logo above or here: www.lawyers-direct.biz.
If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.
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