Virtual firm offers freedom after redundancy
Kim Atherton was recently made redundant after more than 20 years in private practice, both in the City and the regions. She decided to turn the situation into a positive opportunity by joining a virtual law firm that offered her the work/life balance that she wanted. She can now earn up to 75% of the fees that she generates, (which compares extremely favourably to a traditional law firm) and has more time to pursue interests outside her legal career.
mtl: Hi Kim, please can you start at the beginning of your legal career…
Kim: I enjoyed my law degree at Cambridge and the logical next step was to take up articles to train as a solicitor. I joined a small London practice called Lawrence Jones (now TLT LLP). My training was a good general commercial training and on qualification I stayed on with the same firm in their commercial property department. After a few years there, I was head-hunted by Kennedys, which at the time was trying to expand its commercial property department. I was brought in to help build it up but it was the late ’80’s / early ’90’s and we hit an economic recession, so I was there for under two years.
Instead of immediately seeking another job at that point, I jumped at the opportunity to head off to the Indian subcontinent to travel for five months by myself, which was fantastic. On my return I was (naively in retrospect) surprised to find that we were still in recession and that it was very difficult to get a new job. Sound familiar?! Solicitors in London were still being made redundant and in order to find work I chose to re-locate to Liverpool after a fairly intensive job search. I joined a niche commercial property practice there at 4yrs PQE.
It was almost as much of a culture shock moving to the north-west as backpacking in India had been! I didn’t know anyone initially but it was great and I met some lovely people. I ended up leaving after a couple of years partly for career progression reasons and partly because I also wanted to travel again. I then travelled for a whole year around Asia.
On my return to the UK in 1995 I joined Simmons & Simmons where I worked until two weeks before my daughter was born. I took up a role as a full time parent until 15 months later, when I was approached by a local law firm in the East End of London. Although I hadn’t been looking for a job, I went back to work one day a week at first. Gradually I increased my hours over the years until I was working full-time again. I moved firms within the area a couple of times. After I moved house to Chelmsford, I found the commute back to London too much, bearing in mind that I was still part-time at that point.
As a result I decided to work as a locum lawyer for a year or two. I did a mixture of short and longer term contracts and really enjoyed the flexibility. I discovered that my previous perception of locum solicitors had been misconceived as I realised that a decent locum has to be highly competent and adaptable – it is not easy to walk into a role and get on with the job quickly and effectively without knowing a firm or its clients.
1981 – 1984
Law degree, Cambridge
1984 – 1985
1985 – 1989
Articles and assistant, Lawrence Jones
1989 – 1991
1991 – 1992
1992 – 1994
Assistant, Bullivant Jones, Liverpool
1994 – 1995
Assistant, Simmons and Simmons
1997 – 2001
Part-time assistant in several East London firms
2001 – 2003
2003 – 2009
Senior assistant, regional firm
Joined Excello and started a diploma in coaching
I was approached by one of the employers for whom I had done two separate assignments and was asked to take up a permanent position with them. At first I resisted, as I had been questioning my personal commitment to my legal career but ultimately I decided to take the job. That was almost six years ago. I worked part-time for that firm until almost two years ago, when I went full-time. Then earlier this year my position was made redundant due to the down-turn in the property market and I left them a month ago.
mtl: How did you react to being made redundant?
Kim: During the consultation process, I started to look at my options. Initially this meant looking at legal jobs online but then I saw an advert for Excello Law. I hadn’t heard of virtual firms before and I was very attracted by the idea of flexible working. In a traditional firm you can often work very hard yet receive very little recognition and appreciation for your efforts. However the philosophy at Excello is that if you allow the freelancers more freedom and offer them the opportunity of a good work/life balance, they will be more content at work and willing to give more.
In contrast to the position of a sole practitioner, a virtual firm takes care of the regulation of practising law and provides you with the systems needed to work effectively from home. I did consider setting up in practice on my own account, but this is relatively time consuming and expensive. Now I just have to agree fees with clients and Excello does all the billing, paying me a pre-agreed percentage when the bill is paid. I choose how much work I do and when and where I do it and as long as I am available to clients by phone, I can work whenever I want to. Along with the flexibility comes access to other consultants who are spread across the disciplines, so there is some support.
The downside is that at the moment there are not many new property instructions and I have to bring in my own clients. However there are murmurings from previous clients about work they would like me to do and I have a couple of friends who have asked me to help them out with property matters...
As well as sorting out work through Excello, I also quickly started to realise that I didn’t just have to do law. So now I am building up a portfolio career so that I won’t be entirely dependent on legal work in the future. So far I am enjoying my newfound freedom!
mtl: Who would Excello appeal to?
Kim: They are looking for competent and motivated people who have something to offer in terms of their approach, their skills and their client following. If you are fed up with the traditional way of doing things and the stuffiness of a conventional set-up, then you should look into working for a virtual firm. I think it is a very exciting concept and that it will be more prevalent as a way of working in the future. You can be based anywhere in the country as you just need a laptop and a phone to operate. Although Excello doesn’t stipulate a level of PQE, you do need either a client following or the ability to generate your own business, so it would be hard to do it if you are too junior.
mtl: What else are you up to and do you have any advice after twenty years in the legal professsion?
Kim: I have been a distributor in a home shopping franchise on a spare time basis already for a number of years. I have also recently joined a financial claims management company as a representative. However the latest addition to my new portfolio career is that I am taking a diploma in coaching (part-funded by my redundancy pay-out) as I am passionate about personal development and empowering others to identify and achieve their goals.
I will keep practising law as I’ve done it for long enough to be able to earn a reasonably decent income without too much effort. However, in the medium term I also plan to set up my own personal performance/business coaching practice, running in parallel with everything else.
In terms of advice, I’d say to anyone out there that if you are looking at your legal career and feeling unsettled or dissatisfied in some way, then remember that there is always another way! That may or may not involve staying within the legal context. The worst thing you can do is stay stuck in a rut because you don’t feel you have other options. Realise that there may be another avenue out there – take a bit of time to go through a process of self-evaluation and don’t be afraid to make changes. Just because you studied, trained and practised law, it doesn’t mean that changing direction is a bad thing if to do so would be right for you.
mtl: Thank you for your time Kim.
Kim was recently featured in an article on redundancy in The Guardian which you can read here.
Kim is currently offering discounted rates on coaching for lawyers, while in her period of training. For a free, no obligation initial consultation by telephone, please send her an email with your contact details by clicking here.
Click here to see the Excello website.
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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