Hot shot solicitor Karen Holden launched A City Law Firm in 2009 after growing concerned about the impact pregnancy would have on her career at an international law firm.
The company are now the go-to legal experts for entrepreneurs and they have won several prestigious accolades including Most Innovative Law Firm of the Year 2016. Karen has also been shortlisted for Working Mums Champion this year by WorkingMums.
Karen’s drive to succeed stems from being raised on a tough council estate in Wales, where her her mum worked three jobs as a single parent. Desperate for a better life, Karen managed to secure a scholarship to study at Cambridge before qualifying as a solicitor.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I am the founder of A City Law Firm, a London based legal practice offering advice and support to entrepreneurs, start-ups, celebrities and high-net worth individuals. We are specialists across many areas of law but we have notable experience in surrogacy and LGBT issues as well as being the proud the owners of the Innovative Law Firm, London 2016 award for our investment / company advice.
Before setting up on my own, I worked at an international Law Firm in the Strand managing a great team of solicitors and foreign lawyers. Prior to enrolling as a solicitor, I worked as a senior manager and criminologist within the public sector, whilst obtaining my professional qualifications part-time at the college of law.
I completed my law degree and I went on to obtain a Masters at Cambridge University before moving to London to start my career. I never considered running my own business, until the opportunity presented itself. It was a daunting prospect at first but I’m so glad I took the plunge and I wish I’d done it sooner.
Building the business has been an incredible journey and over the past couple of years, we have won several awards including The Lawyer International Legal 100 2016 and members of the Legal 500.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
I always aspired, from the age of 8, to be a lawyer, but imagined myself in court daily in the early days. I progressed from university to the CPS and onto private practice as planned, but the blip in between was affording my qualifications without working so I had another career whilst studying for the LPC part-time. This was not intentional, but opened my eyes to another world and developed my skills, confidence and was a useful experience in my life. This blip proved a useful period of my life to strength my resolve, to think differently to those on a more traditional path and made me far more worldly.
Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?
The biggest challenge I have faced was fitting a family into the equation when establishing my business! As many entrepreneurs, will know, it is very hard juggling a family or even a life with a growing business but I have learned to take quality time off when I can so I can work undeterred at the firm when required. I work full time plus additional hours and never let being a mum impact on my business. I also do quite a bit of work when my husband and son are asleep so I can work without feeling guilty. Having a ‘magic hour’ helps me get ahead in business and I would recommend it to other working mums, who don’t mind sacrificing a bit of sleep.
Another challenge for me has been cash flow! Slow paying clients always causes issues and there were times in the early year’s when credit cards were an essential crutch to pay bills and wages, which was incredibly stressful but thankfully that’s a thing of the past.
On a typical workday, how does you start your day and how does it end?
A typical day for me starts with cuddles with my 5-year-old son before giving him breakfast, dressing him and taking him to school. Then it’s the 30-minute train ride into London where I catch up on work emails (usually around 200-300 per day!).
I manage a very productive team and handle files, marketing and management daily. The best days are those where I meet or work with my start-up clients looking for investment or advice on the next stage and we create and implement a strategy that pays off – always a great boost to the week. Once the working day is done, I might head to a networking event 1-2 times a week and for the rest, I’ll get home in time to put my little boy to bed. My husband and I will then have dinner and a glass of wine before settling down to something on Netflix.
On the odd occasion, I’ll meet my girlfriends for cocktails and a gossip after work which is always fun. I still like to socialise as often as I can with friends and clients so it’s a full-on schedule most of the time.
Tell us a little bit about your role and how did that come about?
I started A City Law Firm in 2009 for two reasons.
Firstly, I’d become very disillusioned about the industry and didn’t like how I was being treated. Clients had become numbers; billable hours were more important than quality work and there was little staff development. The environment had become quite oppressive.
After careful consideration, I thought about starting my own practice where I could offer clients integrity, quality work, competitive rates and start enjoying my job again.
Secondly, my husband and I were keen to start a family and I was concerned about the impact this could have on my career. This played quite a big part in my decision to launch the firm because I strongly believe in the work/life balance, which is not always achievable when you work for big corporate firms. That said I work longer hours now than ever before I just carefully work around my family and quality time off so I can juggle it all.
I didn’t want to be overlooked for promotions or prestigious cases, just because I was a Mum. I know my commitment, hours and skills would not falter, but I remember one of my former colleagues saying she was leaving to have a baby and it was like someone had died!
Running my own business means I can still excel in my legal career and flourish as a mother too.
Have you ever had a mentor or a sponsor or anyone who has helped your career?
I have not had any one mentor my business or career in the usual sense what I had was a supporting, unfaltering best friend – my husband. When times were tough he jumped in to help, when we succeeded he made sure we celebrated to keep us up-beat, when I was exhausted he cooked dinner and poured a glass of wine and now he helps with our son so I can focus on the business.
If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?
Everyone says we should be treated equal; that employers appreciate we can multi-task and work hard; and that we are not penalised for having children or being female and I agree. BUT I do also understand that, in turn, women must understand their obligation and commit likewise to their role and ensure they don’t take unnecessary advantages. If we want equality – flexibility should be afforded to both genders – and respect given by both genders to the work place in turn
How would you encourage more women into STEM/ the digital industry?
Inspiration should be provided in the early years at school and through parents/events. It would be great for female role models in these areas to give talks at the schools and/or universities, for more workshops to be set up to get the children excited in these areas and for us all to break down the gender role models by sharing our stories and hopefully inspiring others.
I work in the City of London and for years being a woman was a handicap, but more and more this has been evolving and gender stereotyping breaking down, but it needs more women to voice their journey so people are not scared off trying
If you were to look back in five years, what would you see in terms of your achievements?
To of built a business from nothing with limited cash and experience; to survive the recession and the common place problems start-ups face is a tremendous feeling for me. I have a team that are not only excellent at what they do, but we all respect each other and enjoy each other’s company which has been a tough thing to achieve. I have also managed to train young lawyers who are now associates and a director and striving with me to further expand the business which is the type of business/ team I dreamed about rather than a hierarchal stressful structure.
Tell us about your plans?
My plan is to develop the business and hopefully recruit another 2-3 solicitors so I can take a step back and let the younger directors step up.
I love what I do and I am incredibly driven so I will always remain involved but I hope to take my foot off the gas to allow myself more family time.
Getting that balance is so important and it’s not easy to achieve when running your own business. Luckily for me, my team are incredibly trustworthy and talented so I can leave them to handle the business if I want to leave early to pick my Son up from school or take him to swimming lessons.
Launching A City Law Firm has been an incredible journey and I cannot wait to see what the next seven years hold. Hopefully a freehold property, more clients and a happy team.