Ex-City lawyer runs kitchen business
Lara Quie practised as a competition lawyer in the City, before leaving to retrain as a Montessori nursery school teacher and start a family. She has now set up a Swedish kitchen business with a friend and former colleague, Sofia Bune, who still works part-time as a solicitor at Baker & McKenzie. We asked Lara about life after law.
mtl: Hi Lara, so start with your legal background.
Lara: I studied French, German and linguistics at Oxford and did the CPE and LPC at the College of Law in Guildford. I enjoyed the European law part of the CPE the most. However I already had a training contract at, what was then, Wilde Sapte. It was very much a banking firm, so I couldn’t do a seat in EU/competition.
Instead, when I qualified in 2000, I went to the European Commission where I did competition work as part of their traineeship (“stage”) programme, almost as a “fifth seat”. I really enjoyed it and decided that I wanted to specialise in competition law rather than banking law.
In the meantime, Wilde Sapte had merged with Denton Hall, but unfortunately it wasn’t possible to qualify into competition there. Instead I went to Taylor Joynson Garrett (now Taylor Wessing), where I stayed for two years. It was a difficult role as I was the only assistant working with two partners and I wanted to be part of a larger team with more people at my level. I then moved to DLA (now DLA Piper), where I shared an office with Sofia Bune, who is now my business partner.
We used to sit there at 3am thinking that there had to be more to life. At the time Sofia was doing up her flat and did a lot of research into kitchens in the UK. However, she couldn’t find the quality that she wanted at a decent price. Instead she found a manufacturer in Sweden, where she is from, who could import one for her in solid wood and fit it in a shorter timescale, and at a lower cost, than ordering it here. I was so impressed that I ordered one too when I did up the flat I owned at the time.
mtl: All very well, but how did you go from buying a kitchen to designing and selling them?
Lara: I left law in 2004 to start a family as I wanted to have children while I was still young. I had looked at partnership and realised that it was not for me. I couldn’t see the point of being on the ladder if I wasn’t aiming to climb to the top. I don’t think that being a partner is compatible with family life, unless you are happy to have a full-time nanny and never see your children.
I had previously been offered a job at the OFT between my jobs at Taylor Wessing and DLA Piper. It was an interesting opportunity and would have had a much better lifestyle. However, at that stage in my life I couldn’t afford to move out of private practice.
In 2004 I didn’t want to just take a career break and I didn’t think at the time that a part-time role was really feasible. Also, having worked at three firms already, I didn’t think it would be particularly different if I moved anywhere else. That’s why I started looking at alternative careers.
I had been so stressed by the long hours culture in private practice and was so disillusioned with it all that I had to get it out of my system. I went away traveling for a month after leaving and when I came back I trained as a Montessori nursery teacher, before getting pregnant. During my pregnancy I set up a business in order to open my own nursery school but I faced so many barriers to entry that I decided to put it on hold to look after my daughter, Jemima.
French, German and linguistics, Oxford University
CPE and LPC, College of Law, Guildford
Training contract, Denton Wilde Sapte
Traineeship ("Stage") at the European Commission
Assistant, Taylor Wessing
Assistant, DLA Piper
Left to train as a Montessori nursery school teacher
Set up Sola Kitchens Limited
After I moved house to Wimbledon and installed another Swedish kitchen in my home, Sofia and I began to discuss the kitchen design idea. We realised that there was a gap in the market and that we could make a business out of it. I agreed to postpone my nursery idea and Sofia decided to see whether she could work part-time.
Sola Kitchens was incorporated in April 2005 after six months of research. We decided on two Swedish manufacturers from Southern Sweden called Lidhults and Ryssby. Lidhults is top-end and makes solid wood bespoke cabinetry which can be compared to Mark Wilkinson, Smallbone and Robinson & Cornish. We also have a mid-range manufacturer called Ryssby, which is more like the Peter Jones/John Lewis ranges and Alno. It is more affordable and semi-bespoke but still offers solid wood doors and worktops.
We take measurements, design the kitchens using a 3-D software programme, do the project management, import the kitchens from Sweden and then manage the installation. Busy professionals who don’t have time to run around kitchen shopping can therefore hand everything over to us and we can have their new kitchen installed within about 6-8 weeks of placing an order. Generally, however, installing a kitchen is a long process as people need time to decide what they want.
Our ambition is to make it a very strong business with excellent customer service. We have had lots of leads in London, starting with the Scandinavian community. The legal world is of course another market as lawyers are busy and expect good quality and our reputation is spreading by word of mouth.
mtl: Have you found your legal career helpful?
Lara: The negotiating skills have been very useful as we had no problem going into meetings and negotiating with manufacturers. We could also draft our own distribution agreements. We went to an “Every Woman” conference which was good, but found that the skills they highlighted were ones that we already had from our legal backgrounds i.e. being organised, efficient, confident and good at handling paperwork. We also found that with the exception of the accountancy side, we have been able to do everything ourselves. My business partner, Sofia, still has a legal career as Baker & McKenzie have let her work part-time. Admittedly she has to be flexible and does work three very hard-core days, but it seems to work for her doing both.
mtl: Any tips for our readers?
Lara: I would encourage people to recognise that they have so many transferable skills. You don't have to get stuck in a rut thinking that you have to do law and can’t possibly do anything else. If you want to set up your own business though, make sure that you are inspired by what it is and that you truly believe in the product and why you are doing it. There won’t be any financial rewards for a while, so you have to be able to cope with that. Check out the competition to make sure that there is a genuine niche. Enjoy it! If you love what you do, then this comes across. If your product is good then it will sell itself.
I don’t miss law and I enjoy the creativity and design opportunities that I get working for myself. I get to wear lots of different hats and am never stuck at a desk. Although law sometimes gives you a sense of achievement and happy clients, it is good to see the results of your work closer to hand and to know that you are working for yourself and not a big organisation. However, I realise that I am very lucky not to be the main breadwinner in my family as my husband is a lawyer at a US law firm. I would like to think though, that if he had wanted to re-train, I would have supported him until he was settled, by remaining in law longer myself.
The benefits of running your own business are obviously that you can control the hours that you work and set your own realistic deadlines. You can also work from home, which is a great bonus if you have a young family. It was so frustrating in law that we constantly lived under unrealistic and unnecessary deadlines – not because of any life or death issue, but just because of money. If a partner can’t get a document out by the next morning then there will be plenty of other firms that will, which is where the problem lies.
"I saw an opportunity to
change the direction of
my life. I think I recognised
early enough that I could do something different."
My father was always full of entrepreneurial ideas and had run companies himself, so I grew up with the idea that it was fine to do this. My mother actually started a City banking career at 36 and was very successful, so again I definitely have a view that anything is possible.
Successful people are often ones who have set up on their own and gone from strength to strength rather than being an employee. I don’t regret having been an employee though, as you can see what works and what doesn’t work, especially with regard to people management.
mtl: What happened to the Montessori idea?
Lara: I am still very interested in it. I had originally planned to open a nursery but there were too many obstacles without a huge capital investment. The sector is also changing at the moment and the future of private nursery schools is looking uncertain. I might do it later in life though, when I have a couple of million spare (!) to set up my own nursery – so the idea is still there, just on ice at the moment. I also think it is better to have a business partner who you can work with and who will inspire and motivate you, rather than working solely by yourself.
If you are something of a free spirit then being self-employed will suit you. The sky is the limit with the business, the options are exciting and it will become what we make of it. A lot of people said I was brave when I left, but initially I felt disappointed that I was throwing in the towel after all those years it took to qualify, though that feeling was short-lived.
I was conscious that my 30s were approaching and I saw an opportunity to change the direction of my life. I think I recognised early enough that I could do something different. Although I don’t really see age as a problem, I wanted to change before I was in my 40s, and given that I knew at 29 that I didn’t want to do it, I had to take the plunge. I would recommend that you look at your life, your skills and your interests. The main thing that will probably stop you is your financial commitments, particularly your mortgage, so look at whether you can downsize and invest in your future by taking a detour now. It becomes more difficult once you have children and you could get stuck in a rut. So, particularly if you are young and single and you only have to look after yourself, give yourself the freedom to try other things. The longer you leave it, the more frustrated you may become being in the wrong job.
Finally I would say plan properly as it can take a while to know what you want to do and to set up a business. However, if for some reason things don’t work out, there is always the security of going back to the law after doing a couple of courses to catch up if needs be. There is always a demand for good lawyers, so leaving is not a total leap off a cliff into the unknown. Don’t just think “what if” - your life is what you make of it. Look at what makes YOU happy and what YOU want rather than at what other people are doing. You will then realise that there is really nothing to hold you back if you want to try something new.
If you are thinking of doing up your kitchen and would like some inspiration, please go to our website and take a look at our Swedish kitchen solutions: www.solakitchens.com
Sola Kitchens would be delighted to offer Moretolaw readers a 10% discount if they mention Moretolaw when placing an order.
If you would like to ask Lara any questions about leaving the law or setting up a business, please feel free to e-mail her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you know any other ex-lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives then please get in touch.
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