There is an increasing trend for partners at large law firms to leave and set up their own boutique practices specialising in one area of law. This is true in relation to niche areas like share schemes, which I work in, but is equally common in more mainstream areas such as commercial law and employment law.
The attraction for many partners is that having amassed knowledge and experience, and built up a reputation in their chosen field, they can set up their own practice and have the ability to run it as they see fit, free from the internal rules and administrative practices that larger law firms necessarily need to run a large, effective and profitable business. Of course, setting up a new business is challenging and carries its own risks, but many partners relish the challenge and enjoy the flexibility that comes with running their own business.
When I tell people that I work in share schemes and incentives law, the response is always: “Shares, schemes and incentives… that is very specialist!” People are intrigued to learn how I secured a training contract at Pett Franklin, and how I have ended up in such a niche area so early in my legal career. It’s not uncommon for people to ask me what working in shares schemes and incentives actually means. Companies use various types of share scheme but the choice of scheme is influenced by various commercial, tax, legal, accounting and regulatory factors, which means advisers in this area need a knowledge of an array of disciplines.
Almost all UK-listed companies, as well as many private companies, offer some form of share incentives to their executive directors and employees. The main reason companies use employee share incentive plans is to recruit, retain and motivate employees. They’re also used to help align the interests of employees, particularly senior executives, with those of the shareholders. This is to encourage senior executives to consider the best interests of shareholders in their management of the business.
However, what people tend to find even more interesting about my role is that despite being based in Birmingham, the majority of Pett Franklin’s work is London sourced. We consider ourselves a London boutique based in Birmingham; this of course presents as many benefits as it does challenges.
Pett Franklin was set up three years ago by its current partners, David Pett (a solicitor) and William Franklin (a chartered accountant), both of whom left Pinsent Masons to set up their own independent, boutique law firm.
Pett Franklin is a multidisciplinary law firm, which means that we are a law firm comprising of solicitors and non-lawyers. Share schemes is an area of law that lends itself particularly well to such a business structure, as implementation of a share scheme usually involves both law and accounting. For example, we are often involved in the drafting of the legal documentation for schemes and reaching an agreement with HM Revenue and Customs over the taxable value of a share awarded under the scheme.
As mentioned earlier, despite the majority of the work being London-sourced, the founding partners of Pett Franklin preferred to base the firm in Birmingham, which is a great place to work, with a thriving business district.
The city is surrounded by some of the most attractive countryside in England, which is within easy commuting distance of the city centre. In reality, most legal work does not need to be done in London. After an initial face-to-face meeting with a client, subsequent exchanges, unless explicitly requested, can be conducted via letter, email or over the telephone. Commercial clients tend to favour this approach as meetings tend to push up costs considerably. This means that we are equally capable of doing City work as firms based in the City itself.
However, there is travelling to be done. Luckily, one of the main advantages of Birmingham is that it has excellent rail links to London, and is no more than two hours from any other major city in England. The reliability of trains between Birmingham and London is much better than a few years ago. Typically it only takes an hour and a half from Birmingham to London by train, and on a good day it can take less. In my experience, a lot of professionals working in the City commute for a similar amount of time every day. The advantage to our London clients is that as we are based in Birmingham, we have lower charge-out rates than equivalent professionals based in the City.
One of the main advantages of working at a boutique firm is the work/life balance that, realistically, is not available at a City firm, all the while providing an uncompromised quality of legal training. In addition, due to the small number of staff, paralegals and trainees at a boutique firm, at a junior level you tend to perform more substantive legal tasks and have more client contact with senior executives than peers in large law firms, where this may be the reserve of senior lawyers. Career progression is one of the other main advantages of boutique firms – with fewer staff and layers of management, the road to partnership may well be shorter than that at a larger law firm.
Prospective lawyers might be surprised to learn that by working at a small law firm, you get exposure to the actual running of the business, something you’re unlikely to experience at a large law firm. A law firm is, at the end of the day, a commercial enterprise providing a service. It is a business in the same way that a shop is a business. In that respect actually receiving monies due in respect to invoices raised is imperative, as is managing cash flow. Working in a small legal business, I have been exposed to the following: the practicalities of administering payroll including applying PAYE and national insurance rules, the maintenance of accounting and financial records, the process of setting fees, billing and debtor chasing, IT issues, and health and safety rules. I have observed negotiations concerning professional indemnity insurance, strategic business planning techniques, and SRA requirements and changes. Being a trainee in a small law firm I also have a tangible role to play in business development and marketing. I was even given the ever-glamorous task of locking up at night.
In considering whether to apply to a successful and highly-regarded boutique firm, prospective paralegals and trainees should ask themselves what job satisfaction means to them. If it is the bravado of the long hours and high remuneration of working in the City, then maybe a boutique firm is not for you, at least not at such an early stage in your career. However, if you relish the opportunity to make a real and valued contribution to a small business and gain a high level of technical expertise in your chosen area, then a boutique firm may be what you’re looking for. If you do your research on the partners and choose your firm carefully, your training will be very highly regarded and you will be extremely marketable upon qualification. I would suggest having a discussion with a recruitment consultant to explore the possibility of obtaining paralegal work or a training contract in a niche area. They will be able to point you in the right direction of reputable boutique firms in your chosen location or area of law.
It is worth contacting these firms, explaining your interest in their area of law, and stressing that you want to experience life at a boutique firm. If they cannot offer you work experience, you might still get lucky and they may be willing to at least have a conversation with you.
A successful boutique firm is a great place to work: you will receive excellent technical training and exposure to running a business, without the almost inevitable sacrifice of a healthy work/life balance that comes with working in the City…definitely worth some serious consideration.