Miller’s Paddy Synnott met with Richard Cramer, founder and partner of FrontRow Legal in Leeds, to talk to him about the highs and lows of setting up his own law firm, including the difficulty in getting insured.
What prompted you to go it alone?
I originally set up my own practice in 2002, before merging with another practice seven years later. However, that didn’t work out and I left after 18 months.
Having practiced law for 25 years, I was suddenly unemployed for the first time in my life. So, in 2011, I went out on my own again.
But you nearly couldn’t get started?
No, I couldn’t get insurance, which meant I couldn’t get an SRA number.
I was shocked because I’d always had a very good insurance record. I’d been very cautious and protective of my policy.
However, the credit crunch and resulting recession meant the solicitors’ PI insurance market had changed dramatically since I’d set up my first practice.
I was ready to give up, but my wife persuaded me to call the Sole Practitioners Group, which put me in touch with Richard Brown. I was brutally honest with him, but he thought he could help me. Immediately, I felt like I had some hope.
The next few days brought a mixture of good and bad news, before Richard called to tell me he’d managed to persuade an AA rated insurer to cover me.
The only problem was the premium was more than I could afford. Richard told me I really should take the offer if I could, so I scraped together the money.
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How was your first year?
My luck changed almost immediately. Within a couple of days I did an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live about Carlos Tevez refusing to come on as substitute for Manchester Utd.
The publicity I got from that resulted in getting my first two pieces of work: a football club that had sacked its manager and a rugby league magazine that faced a defamation action.
However, it was very tough. It was a struggle to survive. My finances weren’t great after leaving my old firm, and although a friend lent me some money, I put a lot of the startup costs on my credit card.
I kept my overheads low. I found serviced office space in a media centre. I bought our first computers on a buy-now-pay-later scheme. I also used cloud-based IT systems and digital dictation software, because I couldn’t afford to hire a PA.
What’s been your biggest mistake?
I’ve trusted people who’ve let me down. It was my fault. I didn’t do enough due diligence and ignored other people’s warnings. Everyone makes mistakes. The key is not to make them twice. Now, I’m much more choosy who I work with.
What’s been your best decision?
Setting up my own practice again. We’ve proven our critics wrong. It’s been really hard, but we’re now reaping the results.
At first there was just me, Robina Hussein – who came with me from my old practice and who’s my partner – and two others.
Now, we have seven fee earners, my wife Julie, who is the accounts manager, and an apprentice we’ve recently taken on.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Recruitment and retainment. We want lawyers who are loyal with a good work ethic.
Our focus is commercial litigation and sports law, which is very fast moving and intense.
Also, we pride ourselves on our quick response to our clients’ requests. That means we can’t just work from 9 to 5. Our trainees work hard, but some of them think the hours that Robina and I work are crazy.
I’m 57 and starting to think about succession planning, so I can eventually step back from the business.
I envisage another three years of hard work before gradually slowing down, then becoming a consultant when I reach 65.
I love what I do and I’m keen to carry on for as long as I can, but I also want to stay in good health. So, I want to keep growing the practice and plan for a healthy retirement.
What advice do you have for anyone thinking of setting up a sole practice?
It’s tougher than you might imagine, so think long and hard before doing it.
Also, don’t underestimate how much support you’ll need. Surround yourself with good people, and of course make sure you choose a good broker. We’ve used Miller Insurance since setting up FrontRow Legal.