The mother of three who set up her own law firm

Helen Mackay wasn’t the only lawyer who wanted more flexible hours. She explains how she used a gap in the market to create her own law firm.

Helen Mackay started her own law firm after noticing there was a need for skilled lawyers to have flexible working hours. The former executive officer of In-house Lawyers Association of New Zealand, who is a mother of three, created Juno: a hybrid law firm and legal start-up based in Wellington. Here, she shares how she did it:

Moving with the times

“Today, businesses are running very lean and rely on flexible resourcing to help them during peak times and ensure they pay only for what they need. It’s referred to as a ‘gig economy’, and it works across a multitude of fields. Internationally, it’s the fastest-growing part of the legal market, and I believed it would work here.

In my last job as CEO for a legal professional body, lots of companies asked me to help them find lawyers on a flexible basis and plenty of lawyers told me they wanted flexible work that fitted around their other commitments.

I wanted to create a business that gives opportunities to other lawyers, helps companies to succeed by having great lawyers working inside them and lets me balance my family and community commitments.”

Thinking outside the box

“The traditional legal profession usually sells time, has demanding deadlines and often expects lawyers to be at their desks late at night.

The attitude is along the lines of ‘work 80 hours a week or not at all’, and it’s hard to balance this thinking with a flexible work environment, which can leave a lot of seriously experienced and passionate people out of the loop.

The more modern way of thinking argues that the time spent on the work and where it is performed is less important, as long as you’re focused on producing great results for your client.”

Building a team

“I followed the advice of entrepreneurs everywhere who said ‘surround yourself with people smarter and better than yourself’, and built a team of outstanding in-house lawyers who have great experience helping Kiwi companies succeed.

But I also trusted my gut. I wanted to find lawyers who not only had great legal ability, but also had real magic in their abilities to influence and contribute to a team. Being a lawyer inside a company calls on all of your soft skills.

Most importantly, I wanted to make sure all of our lawyers are good people you’d want to have working beside you.”

The legal glass ceiling

Over half of law students are female, yet there is a retention problem once you reach a certain level in law (as there are in a lot of industries). This is one of the reasons I wanted to start Juno.

I have met too many incredible lawyers who have left the legal profession as they couldn’t find the right balance or were unhappy with the compromises they have to make. It’s not just a female issue though.

Greater flexibility improves productivity and happiness at work – and relationships outside of work – for everyone. It hasn’t yet been measured in New Zealand but lawyers in the US have 3.6 times the rate of depression of non-lawyers, so wellbeing is becoming an increasingly important issue in the legal profession.

Community support

“Getting the word out and establishing trust was easier than I expected! Businesses were clearly hungry for a better, more cost-effective way of getting legal advice and each of our team members had built trust through their own connections that contributed to the collective trust that our clients place in Juno.

There was also no issue with starting up a business in a typically male-dominated area – many of our biggest supporters are men who lead or co-own their own law firms. We’ve had great encouragement from across the legal profession and business community, which has been really heartening.”

Background research

“I have experience in the corporate legal profession, having been an in-house lawyer for 20 years, and led the national association for in-house lawyers for seven years.

I spent three months researching the market and interviewing more than 50 CEOs and general counsel about what services they wanted from us before we launched. The learning curve has been in business fundamentals, employment law and understanding how to value what we offer.

It’s been liberating and uplifting and I’m proud of everyone in our team for having faith that this new model will succeed. It is comforting to remember it is only new in New Zealand but well established around the world.”

A few niggles…

I’d underestimated all the admin associated with a start-up business – compliance and tax especially – which isn’t hard, just not much fun!

There are strict rules for the legal profession that protect people being advised on their personal affairs, but make it more challenging to deliver flexible and cost-effective legal services to our clients who are all smart businesses.

For example, a lawyer can only work as an employee not a contractor unless they’ve qualified to open their own law firm.

Helen’s tips to start your own business

1 Take time to research your market.

2 Plan well and execute relentlessly. It’s the doing that gets hard, not the knowing what to do.

3 Make use of social media to get fast traction.

4 Don’t lose track of why you are doing what you are doing in the first place. I make myself take a day off and play tennis at least once a fortnight because I want to be true to the values that drove me to start the company!

5 The best advice I was given in starting Juno was many variations on the theme of the Nike slogan, ‘Just do it’.

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