Three ex-City lawyers set up a boutique firm
Simon Thorp trained at Slaughter and May and worked for five years as a corporate/commercial lawyer at Clifford Chance, before setting up onside law LLP with two friends, Oliver Hunt and Jamie Singer. The firm offers specialist advice in the sport, fashion and entertainment sectors, representing a wide range of clients from well-known celebrities to large corporates. The partners are passionate about these industries and claim to offer a genuine commercial alternative to the legal services offered by more traditional law firms. We asked Simon about making the leap from City assistant to start-up partner.
mtl: Hi Simon. So what made you leave Clifford Chance to set up your own firm?
Simon: There were a number of reasons. I have an entrepreneurial streak that runs in my family and so the idea of setting up my own business appealed. At the time, two of my friends were thinking of doing the same thing and it was a case of “now or never”. If I’d stayed at Clifford Chance I would have needed to commit to the road to partnership, as I was already five years’ pqe when I left.
Becoming a partner in a big City firm guarantees you a very good income, but not necessarily the personal satisfaction of having created something yourself. At a firm the size of Clifford Chance, even as a partner your stake in the business is tiny and, in my opinion, it is not uncommon for the junior partners to be treated like assistants anyway.
I wanted a genuine vested interest in the work I was doing and I didn’t think that Clifford Chance offered that kind of entrepreneurial environment. I also just thought that it would be a lot more exciting to establish and run my own firm.
The three of us started discussing the idea in October 2004, six months before we left our existing jobs. During this period we prepared a business plan and began to put in place the requirements for the firm, so we were pretty much ready to go on day 1. We began with a marketing campaign that involved a list of potential contacts, both professional and personal, that we could get in touch with.
We were obviously conscious of our previous employers’ restrictive covenants but we managed to maintain warm relationships with many of our existing clients and contacts. Having drawn up a list of possible leads at the start, we have managed to pick up over 150 clients from professional or personal contacts over the last 20 months – ranging from the very small to the substantial. A rich source of those clients has been former colleagues who have left private practice either to become in-house counsel or to set up their own ventures.
In general we found it surprisingly easy to set up the firm and complying with the Law Society requirements was not too difficult. The initial capital outlay was not significant and consisted of paying for e.g. insurance, marketing, Law Society registration and practising certificates. We didn’t need any external investment.
We spent quite a long time preparing precedents at the start. This was obviously very time-consuming, but it was a necessary evil and saved us a lot of time going forward. Since then we have collated various agreements as we finish deals, and our precedent bank continues to grow. We have also signed up to PLC, which we find very useful as it has a very good database of precedents.
We worked on our logo and colour scheme very early on and tried to break away from the traditional law firm brand. For example, we chose a name which reflects our ethos and industry specialisms, moving away from the more traditional use of the surnames of founding partners. We feel that our brand differentiates us from our competitors and it has been very well received. We aim to be very personable and user friendly and we give our clients as much certainty as possible when it comes to billing.
mtl: So, would you recommend this route as a good career option?
Simon: Yes, definitely. It allows you to take control of your own future. As a senior assistant in a large firm, there is no certainty as to partnership, however good you are. Obviously you have a better chance if you are very good, but I saw many talented assistants having to leave because there was no business case for them becoming partners.
You can also control which clients you work for to a greater extent and can focus on work in the sectors that you are interested in, as we have done. I also really enjoy running the firm and find the marketing and business development sides very satisfying. It is great to see the money in our business account at the end of the month and to know that we can apportion it as the business requires and between ourselves.
The hours are also far less variable than at my previous firm. While all-nighters are now a thing of the past, we do generally work an intensive 8.30am - 7pm day, with far less personal visits to coffee houses and the like. However, the ability to take impromptu time off to attend events or to play sport is far greater.
mtl: You sound like you are enjoying yourself. Are there any obvious pitfalls?
Simon: Obviously in a start-up, our drawings are less certain than in a big City firm, or at least they were to begin with. Fortunately we were able to take salaries almost immediately and I now probably earn a similar sum to what I did at Clifford Chance, although the opportunity to earn in the high £100,000’s would still be greater at Clifford Chance. However, this is more than outweighed by owning a large share of a dynamic and growing business.
We employ an office manager but there is still a lot of general admin to deal with, for example VAT returns and other day-to-day admin which we have to do ourselves. We are currently recruiting a couple of assistants, which is time consuming. Obviously there is not the same support network as at a large firm. At Clifford Chance everything was on tap and we could just get on and do our work, rather than having to sort everything out ourselves.
mtl: Would you recommend setting up a firm with friends?
Simon: It is good in many ways, especially because we are all at the same stage of life. We needed to minimise external pressures as much as possible when we set up the business because it was so time and work intensive. Any issues and demands from outside the business tended to be the same for all of us. We understand each other very well and have done so from the start. I think it helps that although my two partners were friends of mine, we don’t spend large amounts of time socialising together outside of work. I think if you worked with people that you also saw all the time on a social level, it would get too intense. We are a stage removed from that.
mtl: Do you have any careers advice, given your experience?
Simon: There is nothing wrong with obtaining a relatively general legal grounding when you qualify. Then, at 1-2 yrs’ pqe, choose which industry sectors you want to work in and try to learn about the business side as much as possible in that sector. The more contacts you have and the more you know about that industry, the better your business case will be for making partnership. At a big City firm there is little pressure on an assistant to go out and win clients, as the work is just put on your desk. In fact it can be difficult for a junior person to show that they can win their own clients. Making as many contacts as possible with the major personalities in your sector will stand you in good stead.
My two partners both trained at City firms and then went in-house at IMG. As they had worked in the industry sectors that we now specialise in, they have an excellent understanding of them, they know the main players and are able to offer practical commercial advice because they understand what the clients want. They were also able to identify a hole in the market for legal advice in the sport, fashion and entertainment sectors. City firms like to advise in these areas but in reality their fees are too high and without in-house experience it is hard to fully understand the commercial requirements of these sectors. I did an in-house stint at Barclays - it was very useful to have this experience as it showed me what is required from a client’s perspective. I would therefore definitely recommend trying to go on secondment.
When I was at law school, we were all channeled to big City firms and particularly at the beginning of your career there is nothing wrong with that. However, I wasn’t aware of the multitude of different firms out there and what they offer. I am surprised how many boutique firms there are in any sector you could imagine, so there is always an alternative to working in one of the major firms.
mtl: Thanks very much for your time Simon and we wish you all the best with onside law.
Click here to see the onside law site.
CPE, College of Law, Store Street and LPC, College of Law, Guildford
Training Contract at Slaughter and May
Assistant, corporate/commercial, Clifford Chance
Left Clifford Chance to set-up and run onside law