Interview with Rachael Gent, Managing Director, Gent Law05/09/22
In conversation with Rachael Gent – law firm start-up owner and busy mum
In our recent ‘Starting a law firm: Lessons to survive your first year’ webinar, Managing Director Rachael Gent, who started Gent Law in her dining room, shared her tips with her fellow female panellists on how budding entrepreneurs can launch their own legal practice.
We caught up with Rachael to find out her story from studying in law school, to working for a large conveyancing firm, to moving to a smaller entity, to setting up Gent Law, to juggling a busy career with parenthood. Here’s her story…
How did you get started in law?
Children are often asked what they want to be when they grow up. While others were talking about being a doctor or a policeman, I was immediately drawn to law. Ironically though, I chose to study criminology and law but hated my first year. I decided, before I changed career paths, I would spend some time at a law firm first.
Luckily, this was back in 2007 when the housing market was booming and a large conveyancing firm agreed to take me on as a conveyancing assistant. I ended up working during the day and going to law school in the evening. This employer was a huge advocate for me and paid for my courses. I came out of university with four to five years of solid legal experience behind me and thoroughly enjoyed working at a law firm. By which point, I knew it was the right career.
What did you do next?
Fast forward from 2007 to 2014 when I had my first child, I was still employed at the same firm. When I returned from maternity leave, they broadened my role to encompass the website, marketing, sales and recruiting. I was lucky that this gave me a taste of all the components of running a law firm – so much so that it made me even braver about starting my own practice! However, I wasn’t quite ready for that, so I decided to instead move to a smaller law firm where I could put my stamp on things.
Working for a small company was quite an eye-opening experience. Suddenly, things that I’d assumed ran like a well-oiled machine just didn’t exist or needed to be built from the ground up. It showed me that every legal practice is different. There are many things you take for granted, and there are set processes and tools out there that can make your life easier as long as you know what you need.
How did the idea of launching your own law firm come about?
I was chatting with an estate agent friend over coffee. We were both on board with working together and quickly acknowledged we were on to a viable business opportunity worth exploring – a gap in the market for a different type of law firm offering in our area. The two of us became business partners.
The experience gained at my earlier employers gave me the knowledge and confidence to apply my learnings and do it for myself. Gent Law was born and the rest is history.
Describe the start-up process and how you overcame any challenges along the way.
The most difficult part was submitting for SRA approval. Even more so as we’re an alternative business structure. Regulatory approval took twelve months almost to the day. We used professional consultants from the get-go to help us secure SRA accreditation as well as compile policies and compliance documents. We now have an ongoing relationship with these same consultants for risk management training, and I would definitely recommend investing in hiring a consultant to speed things along.
We used the twelve months to our advantage by really thinking about what we wanted, finding office premises, securing professional indemnity insurance, sorting our banking provider and putting our infrastructure in place.
Some of these initial choices have stood the test of time. For example, Quill has been with us since the very beginning and has served us well. While big corporates have the luxuries of an in-house IT team and on-premise servers, we saved on costs and maintenance by opting for Quill’s cloud-based solution. We chose to use a case management provider for our conveyancing specific needs, which integrates seamlessly with Quill’s legal accounts software.
For me, I knew from my experience at larger law firms that a proper case and practice management system would be a key tool that I’d need to invest in, but I was glad to have the people at Quill backing me – they’ve helped dozens of budding entrepreneurs like myself get up and running quickly, and they are reasonable and realistic on price. We’ve been pleased with their support and partnership ever since.
It was a delirious and surreal moment when we realised our gamble had paid off and our law firm could open its doors. We had a huge open day and were chuffed to be fully in business at long last.
What are some lessons learned from starting your own law firm you can share?
Our banking supplier turned out to be a poor choice. They didn’t give any start up support and as a solicitor who had never needed to process a payment of any kind, let alone transactions of huge amounts and volumes, it was a very quick learning curve. For a conveyancing specialist, needing to send payments efficiently and quickly, it was difficult to navigate. I think our assumption was that a large bank would offer the business support we would need.
You were still a relatively new enterprise when the pandemic struck. How did lockdown impact your business?
Correct, Gent Law was only a few months old when Covid and lockdown took us by storm. We only had 40 clients on our books. We were unsure how we’d cope and to say it caused me sleepless nights is an understatement. We were sitting ducks waiting for the market to reopen.
In hindsight, though, it actually made us refocus on the things that normally get lost when you first start up – such as marketing, office procedures and recruitment. We spent the downtime effectively so that once the stamp duty holiday was in place and lockdown restrictions were lifted, we were ready to rock and roll again.
How good is your work-life balance?
Usually, I’m strict in finishing work at 5pm each day. Of course, there are always occasions when you forget to do things – run your payroll, for instance – or need to finish off tasks left undone. I often clear the decks in the evening whilst my children are sleeping to get ready to go again the next day!
I fit my two children around work. My children just see our offices as “mummy’s workplace” and are in and out of it all the time – and that’s exactly the way I like it. The pandemic proved that we can all work from home. Quill’s cloud-hosted software greatly assists with flexible working and I actively promote this for all my employees – of whom there are now ten and rising with possibly a new office in our sights in the future.
What parting words of wisdom would you give to other entrepreneurs keen to set up a law firm?
If you’re considering starting your own law firm, brace yourself! It’s worth the reward but you’ll have to put the work in. You’re responsible for others and it’s a weight on your shoulders.
Building client relationships are key as that’s what grows your business. It’s not just about being a qualified solicitor. You wear a lot of hats and must be comfortable with that.
Relationships generally are so important. I’ve already mentioned accessing consultancy support to bridge your skills gaps. Plus choosing the right banking provider as you need someone you can call for ad hoc support in the midst of completions and rely on to ensure your client accounts are accurate at all times.
When planning your finances, budget what you think with more on top. And plan comprehensively and proactively. Your business plan should cover everything and be a live, ever-evolving document.
Invest in the right software for you – choose wisely and consider systems that are hosted and affordable, like Quill.
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