What You Need To Know to Start Your Own Firm


Our founder Demetrio Zema was recently invited by Young Lawyers Journal to share his experience in starting Law Squared. Read the story below, or at Young Lawyers Journal.


By Sylvie Alston, Young Lawyers Journal

Mainstream television and movies typically simplify lawyers' roles as existing in commercial law firms or courtrooms. However, today young lawyers [1] (YLs) know the profession is often far from its portrayal in popular culture. Three successful lawyers and entrepreneurs – Dominic Woolrych, Scott Chamberlain and Demetrio Zema – share their insights for YLs interested in starting their own law firm or legal services provider (LSP).


Legal profession

If YLs want to "disrupt" the profession, they need to understand it foremost, says LawPath CEO Dominic Woolrych. In Victoria, until YLs have completed a period of supervised legal practice and done work that constitutes "engaging in legal practice" their practising certificate is restricted by this statutory supervisory condition. So, if YLs want to start their own firm (and more specifically provide legal advice) they will need to work at a traditional firm first. The competition for such roles in the current market is real.

Outside the competitiveness of that regulatory framework, YLs now have the option to start an LSP (where no legal advice is provided). For YLs contemplating this, it is not unrealistic to expect to start right out of law school, as long as the necessary experience is gained to understand how a successful LSP works Mr Woolyrch says.

The meaning of NewLaw is widely debated but most agree it is the antithesis of the operations of the traditional law firm and represents a "significantly different approach to the creation or provision of legal services". [2] Law Squared founder and director Demetrio Zema cautions, as does Dr George Beaton, NewLaw does not simply mean "new player" or "new firm" by virtue of its age or size.[3] YLs shouldn't therefore feel the pressure to start their own firms. Rather, he encourages YLs to "reach out" to the NewLaw players and recognise "the trajectory of traditional firms is not the only legal pathway".

Today universities and firms are aware YLs need to be equipped with more than legal knowledge to excel in law. For example, in 2015 University of Melbourne Law School introduced the elective Law Apps and in 2016 Australian National University (ANU) introduced the masters subject. The Future of Legal Practice. ANU academic Scott Chamberlain encourages YLs to question what being a lawyer means beyond becoming a partner at a law firm. Firms such as Mills Oakley have welcomed technology's role in shaping the legal market. It has financially supported two start-ups, including Speak to Scout which Mr Woolrych explains was started by three students after winning Queensland University of Technology Starters and The Legal Forecast's Disrupting Law Competition.


Become your own expert

According to Mr Chamberlain, micro law firms will face a boom in the wake of clients no longer relying on larger firms to do all their work. Such firms are able to offer a better business model to prospective clients than the larger firms as technology now allows "more to be done with less", Mr Chamberlain says. YLs wanting to start their own firm or join a micro one, should be prepared to be their own expert, he stresses.

Mr Chamberlain suggests they start to learn as much as they can about NewLaw providers and non-legal sectors. For example, in-house legal roles are often overlooked despite offering YLs examples of successful business structures and genuinely investing in candidates long term, he says. Ultimately, it is about "building your portfolio" and not being afraid to gain experience from NewLaw providers, Mr Chamberlain says.

Some YLs may feel they are not equipped to become an expert without first completing their degree or gaining some work experience. YLs while at university should take advantage of their summer break to gain a variety of work experience, Mr Woolrych says. However, he says YLs will most likely not hear about such opportunities through "traditional legal channels". He encourages YLs to sign up to subscriptions such as Startup Daily and StartupSmart, participate in Legal Hackathons and join the LegalTech Meetups in their cities.[4]

Meetups will give YLs the opportunity to meet with like-minded entrepreneurs Mr Woolrych says. While YLs wanting to start their own LSP don't necessarily need to become coding experts, it is vital they are able to confidently discuss concepts with developers. Interns and employees at LawPath regularly take online courses through General Assembly to learn about coding or digital marketing, he says. If YLs want to run their own firm they need to understand basic legal principles, how to run a business and how to market and advertise, he says. Mr Chamberlain and Mr Woolrych agree YLs should be following entrepreneurs and others via LinkedIn and Twitter, writing blogs and reading publications such as the Law Institute Journal, the Australian Financial Review and Lawyers Weekly.


Support network

YLs should not be shy about reaching out to others for help. Mr Woolrych says they need a strong "support network" and recommends seeking advisers who have started their own firm or LSP. Demetrio Zema says having a strong mentor and leader is critical. He understands the pressure to apply for a reputable law firm but encourages YLs to "work for a good leader" because having "a leader who you trust and respect and who values you and your efforts, far exceeds the satisfaction gained from working in a named business". He finds mentoring and supporting his team the most rewarding aspect of his job. Notably, a good mentor or leader does not need to have a legal background. The best advice Zema says he received in relation to his business plan for Law Squared was from his father (who died last year). "He taught me to be a leader, to believe in others and to believe in my own vision, otherwise why would anyone else?"

Mr Chamberlain encourages YLs to show interest beyond the law school bubble. He was surprised to find how few YLs were "prepared to back themselves" and had a narrow outlook when entering the profession. The regulatory framework unfortunately encourages this "fixed mindset".[5] As a result, those looking to start their own firm will need to rely on a "wealth of contacts" not just legal ones, Chamberlain says. He is careful to make the distinction between contacts and relationships. The success of NewLaw firms is due to their better business models and not because of the partners' relationships, he says.

Networking beyond law school may mean your career path changes. When Mr Zema started his double degree in international relations and law, he did not have his "heart set on becoming a lawyer" until after he completed his law degree. The plan was to work in insurance litigation before applying to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Only after completing his practical legal training and working in litigation did he come to realise he was headed in a different direction.

Mr Zema says when you are passionate about your job it becomes part of your personal life in a good way – Law Squared has been heralded as one of the "Australian NewLaw Firms to Watch in 2017"[6] and he was runner-up in this year's Victorian Legal Awards Rising Star Award.

This article was written by Sylvie Alston for Young Lawyers Journal on June 15, 2017.

[1] Legal practitioners under 36 or legal practitioners over 36 with less than six years of post-admission experience, graduates or law students.

[2] Furlong, E. (2014) An incomplete inventory of NewLaw [online] Law Twenty One. (https://www.law21.ca/?s=NewLaw).

[3] Beaton, G. (2013) The rise and rise of the NewLaw business model, Beaton Capital. (http://www.beatoncapital.com/2013/10/rise-rise-newfirm-business-model/).

[4] LawHack is Melbourne's Meetup (https://www.meetup.com/en-AU/LawHackMelbourne/).

[5] Mindsetonline.com [2017] (http://mindsetonline.com/whatisit/about/index.html).

[6] Woolrych, D. (2017) 15 Australian Legal Start Ups and NewLaw Firms to Watch in 2017, LinkedIn. (https://www.linkedin.com/in/dominic-woolrych/).