“I suppose after starting a law firm and taking on all of these big, well established, traditional law firms, people want to support me”

Business Leader sat down for a chat with Alice Stephenson. Alice has shaken up the legal sector by creating a law firm that breaks down stereotypes, challenges the perception of who a lawyer is, and removed the stuffiness involved in the legal environment. She aims to empower lawyers to challenge tradition and encourage innovation in the legal sector.

What made you interested in becoming a lawyer in the first place?

I don’t really have a straightforward answer to this. So, I decided that I wanted to become a lawyer when I was working in Human Resources. I’d been working in HR for a few years but I wasn’t loving it.

I couldn’t see myself doing that for much longer and I was just drawn to Law really, and I don’t really know why. I think I thought it would give me the intellectual challenge that I wanted, that it would give me some security as a profession.

How did you go from studying Law to realising you wanted to have your own firm? How did this materialise?

It took quite a few years. I went back to university to study Law in 2007 and qualified as a Solicitor in 2011. I then started my own law firm in 2016.

I was working in private practice in what we call ‘big law’. I’d really decided that wasn’t the right environment for me – I didn’t really enjoy it. I knew that I was a good lawyer and I was good at my job, but it just wasn’t the right environment for me. I just didn’t feel like I fit it in at all.

So I left and started working as a freelancer, mostly with in-house legal teams for about three years, which I did enjoy. But I couldn’t really see myself continuing that indefinitely. It’s hard to achieve very much when you’re doing something like that because I think when you’re working as a freelancer, for a company, you’re always held a little bit at arm’s length – it is quite a strange dynamic.

I started Stephenson Law as it was the only way that I could see myself staying in the legal sector. I wasn’t going to go back to another law firm and I didn’t want to be employed in-house because I really like the variety of working with multiple clients.

So I made the decision that I was going to start my own law firm and do things the way that I want to – the way that I think they should be done.

What about the legal sector put you off, or made you think I need to create my own firm?

There’s a lot of sexism in the legal industry. There’s still a lot of gender inequality too. For example, I was a working mum and I had children when I was at another law firm and there was definitely a challenge around juggling your career with your family. There was very much a culture of presenteeism within the offices I was in.

Comments would be made when I was leaving at 5:30pm to go and pick up my children, calling me a ‘part-time worker’. Generally, it just never felt like a very inclusive, welcoming environment.

It was a very rigid environment with no room for creativity. Nobody was really interested in my opinion on things and I didn’t feel like I could make any impact other than doing the billable hours and the work that was put in front of me.

What are ways we can make this sector more diverse?

There have been some recent changes to enter the profession so that you can now get an apprenticeship within a law firm, which I think is a great idea in changing the training route to qualifying as a solicitor.

But still, this is very expensive. It costs a lot of money to qualify as a solicitor and I think for many that’s unaffordable. I think part of it is just making it more affordable and providing more support for people who can’t afford it.

But I also think a part of the solution is in role modeling people that wouldn’t necessarily consider entering law. A lot of people are written off at a very young age for certain careers by their families or by their schools, and that might not be fair or right.

There are probably lots of people out there that would make fantastic solicitors, but they just never really consider it seriously as an option because the barriers may seem too great. So, I definitely think that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to inspire people from all different backgrounds to consider law as an option.

You made the decision to work fully remotely during the pandemic. Would you go back to an office? Or have you been sold on the upsides of remote working?

For us, I think remote working works really well. We’ve been able to hire people from all over the country and we’ve been able to find some really, really good people. Working remotely just makes it easier for people to juggle their personal lives with their working lives.

So we give everybody complete flexibility and autonomy with their work. It’s not always easy managing a remote team, we have to work really hard to make sure that everybody feels supported and that the communication across the business is really good, and that’s something that we’re still working on.

We’re not spending money on expensive offices and our staff aren’t spending money on commuting. But it’s not for everybody, you know, we do get people applying for roles with us who say ‘I don’t think I want to work 100% remotely’. So, everybody has an annual budget for a co-working space.

Depending on where they are in the UK, they’ll find colleagues that are in the same location and get together in a co-working space for a day. I do encourage people to do that as much as possible as well.

I’ve noticed that social media has become a big part of the business and your brand. You as a brand ambassador has become so integral to the business. Do you feel like this is always a good thing?

Social media has its good points and its bad points. You have to take it for what it is. It’s a tool for promoting my personal brand and the Stephenson Law brand – it’s incredibly powerful.

It’s worked incredibly well for us. There are times when it can become a bit overwhelming. If I post something that’s maybe a bit controversial or goes viral, then it can be a bit difficult, but it’s just about managing that.

Sometimes I’ll take a week off, sometimes I’ll take a bit longer off, it really just depends on how I’m feeling. I don’t really put any pressure on myself, but ultimately it’s definitely worth the effort. I think from a personal perspective, I get quite a lot out of it. I really enjoy engaging with the community that I have on LinkedIn and I’ve met lots of friends through it.

How has the legal sector responded to you being unconventional and outside of what society usually perceives as a lawyer?

I think I’m a bit like Marmite: you either love me or hate me. I’ve got a lot of supporters out there, which I’m incredibly grateful for. I think they support me partly because I’m a bit of an underdog.

I suppose after starting a law firm and taking on all of these big, well-established, traditional law firms, people want to support me. I think there’s always a bit of a tendency to try and support an underdog in that situation.

I also think that there’s lots of people that feel the same way as me and agree with what I say. But I’m the only one that’s really putting myself out there and saying it – I think that people appreciate that because it makes them realise that they’re not alone in thinking and feeling the way they are.

Do you still do legal work for Stephenson Law?

I don’t do legal work anymore. I haven’t done that for about two years now. I’m 100% focused on running the business, so my priorities are overseeing our sales and marketing, our finances, and our operations as well.

This includes our business operations and our people operations, and then also working very closely with our Senior Leadership team to support them, and engage them, with what we’re trying to achieve as a business.

I’m also studying for an executive MBA, so that obviously takes up a little bit of my time, too. So yeah, I’ve always got stuff to do.

Do you miss the nitty-gritty or the legal aspect of it?

No, I stopped intentionally. I knew that I didn’t want to be a practising lawyer anymore, so I built the business to put myself in a position where I didn’t have to work in ‘big law’ anymore.

I haven’t missed it. I did it for 10 years, but I really enjoy being a businesswoman running my business now.

Why is it important to challenge the conventions of the corporate legal world?

When I was working in private practice, nobody really liked their job. Everybody would moan all the time about not enjoying their job, they were just there because they needed to pay their bills.

I was even told “You can’t expect to enjoy your job Alice, it’s just the way it is” – I’ve just always refused to accept that.

I think being a lawyer doesn’t have to be synonymous with being miserable in your job, we can create an environment that people actually want to work in. I think that’s very much part and parcel of what I’m trying to achieve.

Is there anything you have had to implement to encourage a healthy work-life balance?

I think it’s so difficult to see how many hours everybody’s working because we work so flexibly. If somebody sends an email at 10 o’clock at night, it doesn’t mean that they’ve been working from nine o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock at night, they might have taken the afternoon off to spend it with their kids and then decided to finish work in the evening. So, with flexible working, there’s no obvious red flags that somebody might be struggling.

Communication is really important. Making sure that everybody in the team is supported, that they’ve got a line-manager that’s got visibility of what they’ve got on and everybody feels like they can say something if they’re struggling.

What was it like being a woman in ‘big law’?

I think, ultimately, law firms need to adjust the way they measure the performance of their lawyers. They make their decisions around promotion and things like that. There’s a lot of systemic bias in there that recognises and values the wrong metrics.

I think that more emphasis needs to be put on leadership skills, which isn’t really done at the moment. There’s a really good book called ‘Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?’ It’s really interesting and it talks about how the traits that are most commonly associated with men are the traits that are most commonly used in promotion decisions. So, I think there’s a whole piece of work that needs to be done around that.

The problem is that it’s only really going to be driven by having more diversity at a senior level. So, you’ve got this kind of chicken and egg situation where not enough women are getting to the top. Therefore, there are not enough women to drive the change that needs to be made – so lots of women are leaving law altogether.

It’s a really difficult, really complex situation. I think a lot more needs to be done and people need to understand the part they play in resolving the issue.