I was travelling on a train about a week or so ago when it suddenly occurred to me that I had been in self-employment for over 25 years. I had set up TJ Shepperson, my sole practitioner business on 1 August 1994 – 25 years ago.
It is, I suppose, a bit of an achievement so I decided I would do a bit of a self-indulgent post about it. Because if you can’t do a self-indulgent post after being in business for 25 years – when can you?
I can still remember when I got the idea to go solo. At that time I was working as an assistant solicitor in a firm in Norwich called Cozen Hardy. I was sitting in front of the fire in the room which is now my office and suddenly became convinced that I was going to be made redundant (as you do).
We had recently lost a fairly large client – the partner who had looked after them would probably want to cut back and (I decided) I was the obvious choice. Or so it seemed in that sitting room 25 years ago.
What could I do? What COULD I do?
One of the ideas that came to me was to set up my own firm – only to be instantly dismissed as ridiculous. How could I run my own firm?
But once the idea had been born it refused to go away. It caught hold of me and picked me up and would not let me go. It seemed that maybe I could run my own firm. A local sole practitioner, Sally Lane, encouraged me – she had done it, why not me?
And did I want to be an old lady one day, looking back over my life and regretting what I had been too afraid to do?
So one day, in about June, after doing a lot of preparation work, I handed in my notice.
It turned out that my firm had had absolutely no intention of making me redundant. In fact, they were rather shocked when I told them. A shame, as I could have done with the redundancy money.
I’m still not sure how I had the courage to hand in my notice on a perfectly good job and set up on my own with no clients and a £1,000 overdraft.
But I was lucky. Very lucky. A solicitor called Mike referred several clients to me when his firm had been unable to act due to a conflict of interest and a couple of clients who I had acted for in my old firm decided to use me.
So I managed to keep going. And I found to my surprise that I loved the business side of things. I had always enjoyed my work as a solicitor but running the business side too somehow made me feel complete.
A legal aid solicitor
One of the first things I had done when setting up was to get my legal aid number and much of my early work was legally aided. Legal aid was different then, we all did it, even very large commercial firms.
Indeed over the next few years, I obtained a legal aid franchise which was a bit like getting a quality mark. I had by then married and my husband Graeme joined me in the business doing no win no fee employment tribunal work.
It was a bit tricky financially though. With legal aid, and indeed litigation generally, you tend to be paid big chunks at long intervals, and after you have actually done the work. You have to be fairly disciplined to keep enough money back to keep you going until the next payment.
I did enjoy the legal aid work though and acting for tenants. However one day I attended a talk by a solicitor called Kerry Underwood.
Legal Aid, he said, was changing. It was going to contract and only the big firms would be able to keep going with it. It was not something that small firms should invest in.
Leaving Legal Aid
I knew he was right. It would be dangerous for the business to continue as a legal aid sole practitioner. But what could I do instead?
What I did was something which seemed at the time a bit mad but was actually the best thing I could have done. I decided to narrow down my area of work, specialise in landlord and tenant law and act for landlords.
A landlord & tenant lawyer
I had always enjoyed property work and my practice, although a ‘mixed bag’ litigation practice, had majored on property work. I also had quite a few clients who were landlords who used me to draft (and sometimes serve) possession notices and evict tenants.
So I decided to build on that and develop my expertise. But narrowing my area of work meant that I needed to widen the geographic area I drew clients from. Which meant the internet.
I had first discovered this thing called the internet in 1994 when I bought my first computer. I was fascinated to find that computers could talk to each other via the telephone. I joined a legal network called Link, which was great fun and in those early days spent quite a lot of time exploring the early internet and chatting to other lawyers online.
I had a sort of feeling about the internet, that it was important. So I read all I could about it and eventually went along to a UEA training course on websites.
This turned out to be an introduction to html – which was far easier than I had realised. Afterwards, I bought a book on html and then crafted a small site, just in notepad, doing the code myself. I did quite a lot of stuff like that, in between ‘proper work’.
So when I decided to narrow up and specialise, a landlord and tenant website seemed like just the answer.
Developing an online service
I went along to one of those legal shows in London where I met a chap who advised me for a while. It is he who put me in touch with a company in Bristol who helped me with my first professional website.
The company was inconveniently distant from me in Norwich, but it was there that I met Gill Bishop who I have worked with ever since and who has built all three of my Landlord Law sites.
But the original Landlord Law was just a brochure site for my landlord work. Landlord Law as it is now was still some way off.
A professional life
But being a solicitor, for me, involved more than just the fee earning work.
Fairly early on when I was an assistant solicitor (or maybe even before I was qualified) I did volunteer work for a local legal charity, The Norwich and District Legal Service, and later I served on their board of directors for some eight years.
I helped them set up their legal aid franchise and also did a lot of work with their court housing advice service.
I resigned from the board though (with a certain amount of regret) in 2003 as I then I became the Honorary Secretary of the Local Norfolk and Norwich Law Society. That was a very enjoyable job and I helped set up their CPD training program – which was useful experience for me later. I was Hon Sec for some seven years.
I was also involved quite a lot with local sole practitioner groups. But my growing work on the internet meant that my practice was going in a different direction from everyone else.
My first Landlord Law site was a brochure site. But I included on it a questions and answers page where I answered, I think about ten, questions a week from readers.
Of course, at first I had to make them up myself, but I soon got in more than enough questions to support the Q&A page. In fact, it became bourne upon me that a vast number of both landlords and tenants had very little understanding of their legal rights and obligations.
‘What if’ I thought to myself ‘I could set up a website where they could find answers? If I charged for access then that would allow me to develop it properly’. I put a question on the Q&A forms – would they pay a modest fee for access to a site with answers? Most people said ‘yes’. So I decided to go for it.
The website, I remember, cost in the region of £11,000 and I had to take out a loan to pay for it. My accountant thought I was mad.
However, the site ‘worked’ and in the first year alone I got some £14,000 income from it. It was a success.
The benefits of Landlord Law
Setting up Landlord Law was one of the best things I ever did. I had no idea at the time what it would turn into. I was very lucky.
- It evened out my income. Payment for litigation cases is always uneven and very bad for cashflow. Having a regular monthly income I could rely on was wonderful
- It is a more efficient way of working. Rather than tell 50 people the same thing over and over again I could write a really good article and then charge people a considerably lower fee per person to read it as part of Landlord Law
- It gave me time. Not initially – writing the Landlord Law content initially took a huge amount of time. But once it was done it was done, and I could turn to other things.
- It allowed me to develop as an ‘expert’. I HAD to read up on things as I had to make the site information as complete as I could. It was very good for me in that way.
- People liked it. Once people ‘got’ Landlord Law they loved it and mostly stayed with me for years. I still have some Landlord Law members who joined at that time.
The main problem was letting people know it was there. This was the early 2000’s (the site launched in November 2001) and the internet was still young. I had to do a lot of work letting people know it was there. But gradually the site grew.
This Landlord Law Blog
In early 2006 I found out about blogs and immediately set one up. A bit late to the blogging party, but I was one of the early legal bloggers.
The blog was great – it allowed me to write opinion pieces. I enjoyed writing and writing the Landlord Law content, but people were paying to use Landlord Law to find out about the law. Not to read what I thought about it. But in the blog, I could write about whatever I wanted.
The early blog (which was on blogger) was a bit unprofessional as I often wandered off topic and did not write regularly. However, I then joined an online site called Ecademy and found out about the power of social media and the internet for helping business.
From then on I developed the blog as an adjunct to my main business (as well as being something I enjoyed doing) and it has been very helpful. Essential probably.
It sounds from what I have written so far as if it was all an upwards curve. Which in a way it has been. However as with all businesses we have had our tough times. More, probably, than people realise, as its not a thing you talk about.
Probably the worst was in 1996-7 after I had my son. I had settled a big case late in my pregnancy and so had enough to support us over the birth period. However fairly rapidly afterwards we got into difficulties – mainly because people stopped instructing me because they thought I was on maternity leave!
Luxuries like maternity leave are not possible if you are self-employed! We were saved by a friend who was a partner in a local solicitors firm who offered me a couple of months locum work.
Another difficult time was in 2012 when we had a dip in income and I was facing a massive tax bill. I got out of that one by developing my first online course, Easy Law for Landlords. Which led on to our training service. Which in turn led to the Conferences which we now run every year.
Landlord Law 2
By that time I was on my second Landlord Law site. The old site had done very well but was creaking at the seams and so our new site went live in 2010.
It was a bit of a roller coaster getting it done – it took nearly a year, about 6 months longer than planned, and was not without its teething problems.
However, it worked well for me – apart from one big problem. The site had been built in the open-source software Drupal. I found that once someone’s subscription had lapsed, the member’s details became lost and I was unable to retrieve it to contact them. Which resulted in a contraction of membership.
The solution was Infusionsoft
Infusionsoft is an American customer relationship management software service. It is pretty expensive plus you had to fork up a hefty initial fee of some £1,000 for training when you signed up. However, it was a godsend.
I was able to set up a parallel database of Landlord Law members outside of Drupal which did not drop into a black hole after they left. So if they failed to renew I was able to contact them about it.
Most people failed to pay because their credit card details had changed and their payments lapsed – not because they actually wanted to leave. So they were happy to sign up again.
Infusionsoft also allowed me to set up marketing campaigns and indeed run a large part of my business marketing automatically.
My income went up by about 20% in the year after I bought Infusionsoft. My accountant was impressed.
Closing down the solicitors firm
By 2013 my business had changed substantially from the business I had had in the 1990’s. Most of my income came from Landlord Law.
The only ‘reserved activity’ (work you needed to be a solicitors firm to do) was eviction proceedings, and I was starting to feel I had done eviction work long enough. I began to think about closing down the law firm side of my business
- It was expensive – I had to pay for my practising certificate and the considerably more expensive solicitors’ insurance
- It involved a lot of what I considered to be unnecessary administration and compliance rules which although necessary for a large firm were less relevant (and frankly, excessive) for a ‘one-man-band’
- I was also worried about possible rising costs. Several firms seemed to be going out of business with massive, millions of pounds worth of liabilities, and some of these had to be met by the rest of the profession via the fund all solicitors contribute to.
And so I closed down the law firm of TJ Shepperson in September 2013. Graeme had already retired and it seemed the sensible thing to do.
I was worried about it – but it has proved to be a good decision. The only problem was having to come off the roll of solicitors (which I wrote about here). But it looks as if due to rule changes I may be able to go back on the roll again in November.
Landlord Law 3
Landlord Law 2 was written in Drupal version 6. However, since then new versions of Drupal had been released. In about 2017 or so I learned that version 6 was no longer supported and began to think about upgrading.
But it is not that easy and would prove to be expensive. I was quoted about £40,000 by one Drupal expert (although I suspect he was putting me off as he did not want to do it).
Discussing it with Gill, we decided that it would be better to create an entirely new website, this time in WordPress. So in 2018, we started the long work and the new site went live in December.
Having learned my lesson from the launch of Landlord Law 2, I decided against a ‘big bang’ approach and instead have been moving members over gradually. This though meant building the site on a new domain, landlordlawservices.co.uk.
However, once everyone is moved, I will be able to close down the old site and re-direct the landlordlaw domain to the new service.
So that brings my story (a very abbreviated story) up to today, in August 2019.
So what next?
I feel very excited about the new Landlord Law. I can do far more with this new site than I could with the old. So there is a lot of development work to do.
I am also excited about developing new training courses. I have recently invested in some new course creation software and will be writing shortly about the new course I am creating with it.
There are a few other ideas knocking about in my head, but it is not good to talk about new ideas too early as it can kill them dead
Was I right, back in 1994, to throw up my well-paid assistant solicitors job and venture out into the uncertain waters of self-employment?
Yes, a thousand times, yes.
- I have control over my own destiny. That is important to me – I do not like other people telling me what to do!
- I have been able to experiment with new ideas. Which has been great fun. Not all of my ideas have worked out (indeed probably most of them have not) but I have enjoyed trialling them and some of them I will come back to later, when the time is right for them
- I think I have been able to help people, far more people than I would have been able to help had I stayed as a traditional solicitor. Which is nice.
And when I am an old lady on my deathbed looking back on my life, I won’t be regretting those lost opportunities. Because I did it. For 25 years at least.