Lessons from setting up a law firm

I wonder if there are people who are already sick and tired of me talking about setting up a law firm when my law firm is literally barely 2 months old. On the same note, I wonder if people who follow me on Twitter are also sick of me talking about Clubhouse. Truth is, elitism arguments aside, I do enjoy the content I find on Clubhouse. This post is inspired by the last chat I had on Clubhouse with Marcus van Geyzel and Lee Shih on why I started my own law firm.

My “Why” was a little more personal and I think I’ve said all I wanted to say about this. I’ll give this a break for a while and come back to this subject soon but from the perspective of mental health and the legal profession.

I wanted to write this post for my own reflections of the lessons I’ve learnt thus far.

1. Have plans but be prepared to adapt

I didn’t really have a real, concrete plan because of the circumstances of how I ended up with this decision. Setting up a law firm was the last thing I wanted to do. I didn’t commit to the idea of setting up a law firm until almost the end of last year. I didn’t write to the Bar Council to have the name of my firm approved until close to Christmas. It was no wonder that some of my friends didn’t think I would go through with this.

A lot of what I eventually did seemed like things which I decided on as I went through the motions. In a lot of ways, it can be quite haphazard to be jumping into something without proper planning. I have been blessed to have friends in the profession who have gone beyond what they needed to in order to help me get on my feet. For this, I’m eternally grateful.

But setting up a law firm in the middle of a pandemic, a Movement Control Order and an emergency order certainly comes with its own set of challenges on top of the usual administrative hassle which comes with setting up a law firm. One of it is of course delays in getting all the administrative matters sorted which will then set you back on your best laid plans to start operations.

The greatest lesson the pandemic has taught me is that I need to adapt quickly or probably risk being very miserable. For example, I didn’t plan to so quickly have a website and Linkedin page simply because initially they weren’t priorities which I wanted to spend time and also money on developing and maintaining. This was part of my strategy in keeping my costs lean and what I picked up on from speaking to other friends who have set up their law firms earlier than me. But given the situation and circumstances we’re in, I quickly changed my mind and decided that a website and a Linkedin page needed to be a priority at this present time. There’s really no hard and fast rule, I believe. Everyone’s practice is going to be different. Our respective target audience as well as business development strategies may also differ.

It is just important to decide what is best for you and your practice even if it was not part of your plan. Adapting and having some degree of flexibility comes in handy.

2. Not all advice are good advice

One of the things which I had to condition myself to getting used to was to be cautious with the kind of unsolicited comments and advice I was getting from many people. Some are obviously very helpful advice and some are clearly not.

One of the most unhelpful advice / comment which I like to believe came from a place of good intentions was that as a woman, I would struggle with securing clients more than men would struggle. Why? Apparently this person believes that people trust women less and will be less likely to engage a woman lawyer. I’m glad for the research I’ve done on business development for women and I know that there are papers out there written based on studies which show that such a belief is far from the truth. In fact, quite the opposite, trustworthiness can be a woman’s greatest selling point. The good intention of the person giving this advice / comment, I think, was to help me manage my expectations for when I find things in the first couple of years to be challenging.

The point in me sharing this is that whilst I understood the good intentions of many people, I had to learn early on to differentiate good advice from what I now call, noise. A lot of what people project on you are more of a reflection of their beliefs and experiences. Some are good, some are less helpful and some are really just noise. I learnt that I have absolute power in deciding what I choose to listen to and what I choose to take on board.

3. To do or not to do

The reality is that setting up a law firm in Malaysia is easy. Many of my peers would agree with this. The expenses to set up a law firm do not have to be high, depending on the kind of practice or set up you want. Despite my complaints over the administrative hiccups and hassle which I was not accustomed to dealing with during my 8 years of practice, I do think that setting up shop was the easiest part of it all.

It is what comes after setting up which is harder and takes a lot more time and effort to figure. What do I know really know about the challenges which lie ahead when it’s barely been 2 months? But I think some aspects of it are already pretty obvious. For instance, one of the best advice I think I got was (also validated by Paul Jarvis in Company of One) an advice telling me to decide early on what type of work I will NOT do. Initially, I thought it seemed arrogant for me to even say it out loud let alone saying “no” to enquiries on work which I’ve decided I will NOT do. On the other side of the argument is that as a new and young law firm, you should take on whatever work that comes your way because once you turn people away, they might never come back to you or take whatever because you need the money to survive!!

This to me is quite a delicate matter because I never want to come across as arrogant or overly confident or to even send out such a message to fellow lawyers and clients. In fact, writing about this is a risk I choose to take knowing full well how this can be construed quite negatively. But having a more focused and specialised practice is something I aspire to have. Pretending to know about specific practice areas which I have no experience in would, in my opinion, do more harm to the brand and reputation I am trying to build.

I choose to see myself as a great referral source to other lawyers when certain enquiries for work which I choose to not do come my way and I agree with the saying that sometimes our purpose in some people’s lives is to bring other people together.

4. There is a great community within the legal profession

In the sea of frustration and bitterness we often hear about the legal profession, I came to learn that beyond the frustration and bitterness, there is a great community within the legal profession. I once wrote that it’s nice to have friends in the profession and it truly is. I appreciate this more now that I am on my own. The kind of help which I have received from this profession was something I didn’t expect, especially from people out of my previous firm.

One of the best things we can do is to pay-it-forward and make this profession one which is one that is enjoyable and one which we can stay in for a very long time. I talked about this in my last Clubhouse chat and quite quickly, I had fellow female lawyers telling me personally that it is usually the men offering them help. I beg to differ. My experiences have been different. There are many great women out there who want to help other women succeed. Anyway, without undermining other women’s experiences, I’d say if you can’t find a woman who supports another woman in her practice, then let’s be that woman for someone else. As clichéd as this may be.

By now, I think you all know I love clichés. I will always be clichéd because I think a lot of clichés are true.

Final thoughts…

I do feel anxious from time to time but a lot of the anxiety are probably more ego driven than based on reality of my present circumstances. Truth be told, I am pretty excited about this journey at the moment but I’m also conscious and mindful about keeping an open mind about things. After all, I never imagined I would end up here and that experience will forever remind me that it is ok to change my mind about things if they no longer serve my interests and well-being. Some things may turn out to not be for me, afterall. Like law firm partnerships. For now, at least.

Wish me luck!

Leave a Reply