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Starting a law firm: four practitioners reveal why they struck out on their own

31 May 2024

| Author: Diana Clement

At some point in their careers, many lawyers have a hankering for starting their own firms. Maybe they’ve had enough of the hierarchy and conservatism of top-tier firms, or they’re tired of long hours and tyrannical bosses. Or they want independence and flexibility – and a better financial future.

But setting up a law practice is hard work. It’s all about rock-solid business plans, structure, bank accounts, insurance, software and cybersecurity – and having a great marketing plan. It’s about having a good working knowledge of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006, including conduct and client care rules and trust account regulations.

LawNews spoke to four practitioners who’ve taken the plunge.


Helen Mackay: director, Juno Legal

As an in-house lawyer, Helen Mackay’s route to business ownership was always going to be different from someone who had taken the path of private practice.

She had been in-house for nearly 20 years and ran the In-House Lawyers Association of New Zealand (ILANZ) for seven years before going it alone.

“My first time working in a law firm was when I started one,” she says.

That business was an on-demand, in-house legal services firm, Juno Legal. It offers secondment roles. “We have a team ready to be deployed, often at short notice so they can jump into projects or transactions,” she says.

“We parachute into projects and businesses which need senior, strategic firepower, often at short notice and we help companies design, establish or improve their in-house legal functions.”

As part of Mackay’s due diligence, she interviewed 50 general counsel from around the country and asked what type of services they might want.

“So, we designed the firm based on what those 50 interviews told us about what people wanted. Where were the gaps? How did they want this service to be delivered?”

Mackay had a young family when she launched Juno but realised she needed a new challenge. “There was this alternative legal service providers [model] established in the UK, the US and in Australia. In New Zealand, our models were very binary. You were either in a law firm or you’re employed as an in-house lawyer.”

Like many lawyers, Mackay wanted more personal flexibility. “So, this idea of a flexible model that would straddle those two was really appealing to me.”

Mackay says the firm has had a dream run. But some of the issues she faced would not have arisen had she been working for someone else. These included how to resource the non-legal functions of the business, such as marketing, operations, finance, and HR.

“Easy when there were only four or five of us but now that there are more than 35 of us, it is a reasonably sized operation to juggle.”

Over the years, Mackay has had at least five coaches, several mentors, a few strategic advisors and she is now part of Entrepreneurs’ Organization New Zealand, which is a forum of other business owners who share helpful experiences.

“Leadership can be lonely so the ability to gain wisdom from people who have done it before is invaluable. And I believe in giving back so am formally and informally mentoring three or four people in the legal profession and outside it.”

Despite more flexibility in the law, balancing workloads and living a good life in law is still an issue, she says.

“It is a client-service industry so it can be hard to manage your own time and workload. It is a wonderful profession and career, but I do sometimes wish we could practise law the way my father did by working 9am-5pm, often popping home for lunch hour and taking several days, if not weeks, to ponder his advice and send a letter back that had been carefully thought through and not rushed out by email.

“The other issue which I see as a great opportunity is how we integrate the use of technology into legal practice for the benefit of our clients and to enhance our enjoyment of practising law.

“At Juno Legal, we are constantly exploring and refining our tech stack to ensure the best experience for our people and our clients. We have realised that we are not able to develop new technology ourselves but have just invested in an exciting new legal tech start-up which will be a game-changer for in-house legal teams.”

Mackay’s advice for anyone taking the step of starting a law firm is go for it.

“There are regulatory hurdles to get over to qualify so it can be tough, but it is wonderful to be in control of your own destiny and to only have to keep your clients happy, not meet prescribed budgets or deliver a certain number of billable hours per year.”


Joanna Pidgeon: director, Pidgeon Judd

For property lawyer Joanna Pidgeon, the path to starting her own firm was quick. Within a month of giving self-employment a thought, she was running her own private practice in property and commercial law.

It was 2009 – the height of the Global Financial Crisis – and several of her property development clients were “a bit rocky” as they were struggling to get finance.

Nonetheless, she decided to stick to her knitting which at the time was property and commercial work.

“It wasn’t something I’d always planned to do,” she says. “My second daughter would have been about 15 months old, and I had been approached by head-hunters to go back to a top-tier firm.

“My husband said to me, ‘if you think you can build your client base, why don’t you set up your own law firm? You’ll have the freedom and independence that you don’t have within the structures of a mid-sized to big-sized firm. You can practise how you want’.

“It was a lightbulb moment. Within two weeks, I decided I was going to set up my own firm, resigned and did it.” A client had office space available, and Pidgeon moved into that.

It helped that the family still had her husband’s income, but he later resigned from his corporate job and became Pidgeon’s practice manager.

Going solo made it easier for other lawyers to refer work to her. “That would have been harder had I been in a big firm, because [now] I’m not seen as the same full-service competitor.”

Although Pidgeon had been through the NZLS Stepping Up program to become a partner, she had to arrange a power of attorney at short notice to become a sole trader. Initially, she outsourced her trust account while completing the prerequisites, which meant getting up at 4am to study.

Going solo also meant Pidgeon had to do everything herself. “In a firm, you get people to do stuff for you, and there are systems in place. When you’re on your own, until you have support staff, you’re the one reconciling the trust account, the business account and doing the GST returns. If you want to send a courier, you need to set up a contract with a courier company.

“I had a law grad join me soon after I started and then hired my first solicitor after that. It seemed like quite a big step, taking on that responsibility to meet another salary.” Pidgeon says she worried in those early months and years if she would have sufficient work to feed her staff.

After more than a decade as a sole trader, her firm merged with another sole trader, Leigh Judd Law, to create Pidgeon Judd. “With the merger, we became a company,” Pidgeon says. A third director joined and now runs their Wānaka practice.

Looking back on the past 15 years, the highs have come from taking on large new clients. The downside in the early years was not having colleagues along the corridor to speak to.

“I’m quite a collegial person and you do miss having your colleagues just a door or two down that you can pop in and discuss things with,” she says. So, you need to make sure you get out and attend events and keep in touch with people. Otherwise, it’s isolating.”


Samira Taghavi: barrister and practice manager, Active Legal Solutions

Samira Taghavi didn’t have to have a lightbulb moment about when to go out on her own. She knew, aged five and living in Iran, that she would be a lawyer and a defence lawyer at that. This meant going it alone as a barrister.

“My dad’s also in the field, so I grew up watching him in action. Criminal law has always intrigued me and I’d always seen it as my long-term goal,” she says.

Taghavi’s parents were so determined she would become a doctor that they refused to let her enrol in a secondary school that would lead to a career in the law. She had to enrol herself, against her parents’ wishes.

It was inevitable that she would go to the bar, after completing her LLB in Iran and a Masters degree in New Zealand.

In Iran she’d worked mostly on murder and death penalty cases, which opened her eyes.

“It’s sad to see how many wrongful convictions and forced confessions happen there, often due to torture. That experience really highlighted the importance of fighting for justice and protecting people’s rights in the legal system.”

After jumping through a few additional hoops to practise in New Zealand, Taghavi worked for barrister Patrick Winkler for five years before striking out on her own.

“I was given a lot of responsibility by Patrick,” she says. “He taught me everything, from nailing advocacy and courtroom appearances to handling clients and running a successful business. I’ve soaked up a ton of valuable knowledge from him, including marketing tips.

“I’ve also been lucky to have a solid network of people like Marie Dyhrberg KC, Julie-Anne Kincade KC, Elizabeth Hall and Emma Priest and many others who are all independent barristers.”

Taghavi was never drawn to partnership-type firms because she feels that independence is crucial in criminal law.

“You can’t be bogged down by financial concerns and spreadsheets. Your focus needs to be on serving your clients and upholding justice. Working as a defence lawyer at the bar isn’t like working for a firm where making profit is a major goal.

“It’s a whole different experience. You’re not just providing a service; you become your client’s confidant and advocate. The relationship you build with your client goes beyond a mere transaction. It’s more personal and involved.”

But there are definite issues when going out on your own that you might not face as an employee in a law firm, she sats.

“One of the biggest challenges is finding time for yourself.” Taghavi doesn’t recommend lawyers specialise too early in their career. “It’s best to stay employed for a while, soak up as much knowledge as you can and build a solid network of support before venturing out on your own.

“Personally, I wouldn’t have felt ready to make that leap until around the age of 35. Even if I had the required New Zealand experience by age 25, I still wouldn’t have had the confidence, knowledge or experience to strike out on my own. That maturity, along with the wisdom gained from having a good mentor and listening to other lawyers, is invaluable.”

Her advice for anyone considering taking the step to start up a firm is to reach out for help. “Whether it’s seeking training, mentorship or just a listening ear, there’s no shame in it, no matter how experienced you are.

“The defence bar is a wonderfully collaborative and supportive community. We’re here to look out for each other. So, let’s ditch the idea of competition and instead call on one another for help when needed.”


Thomas Gibbons: director, Thomas Gibbons Law Ltd

Not everyone misses having colleagues down the hallway and, in fact, this has been a highlight for property lawyer Thomas Gibbons, who went out on his own in 2020. “I really enjoy having a lot fewer interruptions,” he says.

The lightbulb moment for Gibbons that led to him setting up Thomas Gibbons Law was shortly after the first covid-19 lockdown in 2020.

After 17 years at McCaw Lewis in the Waikato, Gibbons’ practice had become increasingly specialised, especially after he wrote a book about the Unit Titles Act. He found he was often sought out for specialist opinions.

“There was a moment when I came in at the weekend after the first lockdown to do an opinion and I realised I really enjoyed sitting down and writing the opinion.

“I reflected [and thought] I’d like to focus more on doing that work again rather than being focused on managing a team.

“The way I describe [it] to people is that I just come into the office, do some work and when it’s done, I go home. Obviously, clients have deadlines. But because I’m not supervising other people, there’s quite a strong degree of autonomy about the work.”

Going it alone has led to work opportunities that Gibbons didn’t foresee.

“For many years I’ve done various kinds of expert opinions. [As an] independent practitioner, there have been more referrals from other lawyers for things like peer reviews or risk assessments. That’s been really fun.”

Unlike Pidgeon, Gibbons has remained a one-man band, handling everything in the practice himself with the help of software solutions such as Harvest Billing.

And he says the remuneration in private practice has been better than as a partner in a mid-sized firm. ■

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