A very different type of law firm

"We try to create an environment where we respect everyone as individuals and try to treat everyone based on their needs."
June 26, 2023

An interview with Karen Holden founder and Managing Director of A City Law Firm


"We try to create an environmentwhere we respect everyone as individuals and try to treat everyone based ontheir needs."


How many law firms do you know:


- That actively nurture and developtheir firm's culture?

- That will offer startups free hours,don’t charge by the hour and aim to charge a fixed fee foreverything they do over the first year or two, depending on how the startup’s needsprogress?

- Where there is an open door policyand a friendly and caring environment?

- Where the team is given a sayregarding their individual bonuses and choose to invest in social activitiesfor the team instead of taking a higher cash bonus?

- Where the firm is aiming for a goodbalance of work ethic, client care and relaxation outside the office walls?

- Where the firm has an issue with somepeople not taking enough annual leave?

- Where the firm gives the team 35 daysannual leave as standard and they can buy extra days over and above that.

- That will buy a jazz boat tripexperience on the Thames for the person who won the Most Dedicated Lawyer,instead of awarding cash?

- Where, as a new father, the firm willpay 50% of your salary so that you can work from home for 3 months?

- That has won Most Innovative Law Firmof 2016, London Business Start-Ups Law Firm of the Year in England in 2015,2016 and 2017, amongst other awards.





Meet A City Law Firm and itsfounder and Managing Director, Karen Holden.


Why did you start A City LawFirm?


I was disillusioned while working inthe big firms; it was all about making money, hitting targets and not genuinelysupporting the client. I was also demoralised as I wasn’tgetting the personal growth and development I was looking for nor that of myteam. I felt I had a choice to leave law or try something crazy or brave suchas starting up myself. If I had carried on in the big firms I would not havefelt fulfilled.

 I decided to set up my own firm,which as a pure startup meant it was me in a room with a computer and a stackof client files. I initially had my husband and mother helping out where theycould until I was able to employ staff. I fortunately had some loyal clientswho followed me to the new firm and I consulted with other firms to keep myhead above water. It was stressful but exciting but when I started bringing myteam over it really started to take off.


How did things change once yougot the business on its feet?


It took a while to get the businesson its feet and we had some tough times. There was a time when, due to clientsdelay in payments, I couldn’t easily paysalaries. One month I communicated the situation to the team and they actuallysuggested that I didn’t pay them that month, which wasincredible. I couldn’t do that though,so I put it all on my credit card. The team showed me unbelievably loyalty andI in turn wanted to prove my commitment to them. This depth of commitmentcontinues to this day and is one of our core foundations.

The big difference, although it wastough in the beginning, is that I really enjoy my work and the environment Iwork in. I am able work the hours I want to see my family and importantly I canfall sleep knowing I had maintained my integrity and was doing the right thingfor my team and my clients. The team has grown slowly; one of my paralegalsAndrew, came over to join me seven and a half years ago and is now a Directorof the firm, sharing the load.



What are the company mission,vision and values?


We define our mission as deliveringquality services and maintaining outstanding client satisfaction. For our staffour mission is to build a family friendly, social environment with theopportunities for career progression and growth.

 In terms of values, we are ateam that must build the firm from within. We identifiedthe firm’s core strengths and future growthbeing centred around three core values of Leadership, Innovation andPersonality. To each person this means slightly different things, but as acompany we are always thinking proactively for ‘out of the box’ solutions.  It is important to us that we never lose ourpersonality and who we are because it is who we are and our clients like us thatway.


How is A City Law Firmdifferent?


Firstly, our firm's culture is veryimportant to us and we work hard to nurture and develop it. Secondly, we arenot traditional or target based lawyers. We don’tlook at a client and wonder how we can make more money out of them. Instead wedo what’s commercially sensible and takesteps to advise and protect as best we can. We will give you a list of options— the pros, cons and risks associated with each — and we workwith you to make the decision that’s right foryour business. You should never ever allow a lawyer to run your business asthey will always err on the side of caution and will not know your business aswell as you. A lawyer should be there to guide and advise but not dictate.

 We are continually looking foralternative & innovative ways of helping our clients be it finding theminvestment or re-structuring their set up. We can be flexible with our feestructure and will consider different models for different clients.  We like to think of ourselves as innovativelawyers; we are not high street, nor are we big city and there is no one elselike us in the City of London.


How are the firm’sinternal work practices different to other law firms?


It's all about our culture. We listento our people to understand what drives and motivates them, giving them a voiceand embracing their needs in the process. We have regular socials and an opendoor policy to create a friendly and caring environment. Like all firms, wehave policies written down, but the real value comes in showing our team thatwe mean what we say, for example taking time out of the day to talk to them andlisten to them, however busy we are and whatever the question may be. We try tolead by example and let our personalities shine through in the manner in whichwe run the firm — a good balance of work ethic, client care and relaxationoutside the office walls!

 We don’t havereceptionists. That means that when you call in you are, for the most part,immediately talking to a trained professional. In this way there is nosecretary or other barrier between the customer and the legal team. They areable to understand your situation, give advice, book a meeting or give a quoteor follow up with advice immediately. It’s a great wayto close new business opportunities and our clients get that personal touch asthe team member often knows who they are and can address their questionimmediately.




What novel approaches do youtake to sourcing new business and building the brand?


We win new business throughreferrals, word-of-mouth, our network and more recently we have since seen anupturn with social media leads. We have started seeing Facebook ads attract anew client base such as tech clients at an earlier stage in their developmentlifecycle. We initially didn’t use socialmedia as much as we do now as we didn’t fullyunderstand its benefits. We have hired a marketing manager and we are now usingsocial media to promote our content and initiatives to a much wider audience.


What is the growth plan forthe business?


I don’t want to bea large corporate firm employing thousands of lawyers. I have the perfect teamthat delivers quality work I am proud of and I don’t wish thatto change. There are thirteen of us and we could possibly take on one or twomore. If you had asked me two years ago, I would have been happy with a team of6. I think the limit is fifteen but who knows? The problem once your team getstoo big is that you can no longer control the quality of work or maintain thefriendly environment we have. My big ambition is to secure a freehold buildingfor the practice to remain in until I retire at least.  As a company we don’t needvolume; we want quality, interestingwork and to have an office people want to come into every day.


How do you handle therecruitment process?


The first meeting with a prospectiveemployee is all about understanding the firm, who we are and what makes us tickwhilst getting a sense of the candidate’s suitabilityfor the role. This is important as we want any new employee to buy into ourculture at the onset and appreciate we are different from large city firms.Andrew and I do the first interview and after giving a candid portrayal of thecompany and the culture we will send down a trainee or paralegal to meet them.They can give a brutally honest picture of our company and how we work and askquestions the candidate may be too nervous to address honestly with us. If thecandidate passes the first round we will have them come in and meet moremembers of the team and sit a second interview.


How are the team’srewards structured?


Our approach towards incentives,bonuses and benefits is to listen to what the team wants, test their ideas andkeep what works. If not, we change it.


Based on our team’sfeedback we have recently created new benefits around annual leave and bonuses.It turns out that there are two things that motivate our team: more socialevents and more leave so they can spend time with friends and family. So wehave created a social secretary and a social treasurer position, allocated thema budget and it is their role, with the team, to arrange and look after thesocial aspect of the company.


In order to allow people to have moretime off we created a system whereby our people can “buy” or claimadditional annual leave. As a business we have a requirement where everyone onthe team must attend one networking event a month. If they do an extra activityfor the business over and above that one event, they can bank the extraactivity time they have invested in the business to buy more annual leave. Wealready give the team 35 days annual leave as standard (versus the usual 28days) and they can buy extra days above that.


We used to have personal targets anddepartmental target bonuses but we decided to scrap the departmental bonuspayment because the team was worried that it might incentivise the wrongbehaviour and stop work being cross referred properly within the team. The teamwas concerned that people would become too possessive about the deals and focuson hitting their targets. Instead, we now have a quarterly reward dinner paidfor by the company for the best department. The team can now focus on personaltargets and help other departments because it’sthe right thing to do and there is no conflict of interest.



What awards does the firm havefor exceptional effort?

We have different types of awards,such as Employee of the Year, Most Innovative Employee and Most SupportiveEmployee. This is voted for by the staff not just management. I was awarded themost supportive employee so we scrapped that award and changed it to the personwho had worked the hardest, gone to the most events, attended the most seminarsand so on. We recently bought a jazz boat trip on the Thames for the winner of Employeeof the Year and her partner instead of just giving her cash. One of our juniorswho won the Most Innovative Employee award told us that she would like extratime-off during her appraisal, so we gave her three extra days of leave. Theteam likes a bit of fun, so we created a trophy for the Employee of the Month,also it encourages the gentle rivalry that we enjoy. At the end of each montheach person writes on a PostIt note what they have done and achieved that month. The Post It notes areread out in a team meeting and the winner is voted by the team.


What issues do you face withthe flexible work environment?


We have an issue with some people nottaking enough annual leave or working long hours because they literally lovetheir jobs so much, but I don’t feel that’sright because people must have a break. One team member just refuses to takeher full annual leave and when I asked her about it she said that she was happywith the amount of work she does. I even offered to buy back the leave and shesaid that one day she will want to have a baby and then she would ask for moretime off.

 Some staff need different hours forschool runs, some have evening commitments and others want to work remotely oncertain days due to personal commitments. The challenge is to monitor theperformance so your firm doesn’t suffer orothers have to bear other people’s work load vstaff happiness and motivation. It’s a constant process,but so far it has worked for us.

 We try to create an environment wherewe respect everyone as individuals and try to treat everyone based on theirneeds. At the same time we need to have standard policies and procedures sofinding the balance can be a challenge.


 How is career progression andpromotion different at the firm?


Our people are all different. Somemembers of our team want to just be excellent lawyers, others want to be headsof departments and others want to become directors of the company. In atraditional firm you become partner for the status, respect and money. In ourfirm you don’t need to reach partner to achievethese things. The goals and objectives in this firm are different to the normalfirms. Whether you want to be the best lawyer and earn well or you want tobecome a director of the company, it’s possibleand there is a process you can follow.


How do lawyers who have workedin one of the big firms fit into the culture?


Many members of our team have boughtinto our culture because they had experienced a negative environment in aprevious firm or had been extremely stressed working long hours for target-basedfirms and wanted a change.


In recruiting we have consideredcandidates from the large magic circle firms as well as less traditionallawyers. We found some were looking for designer offices, named status at thefirm and all the other trappings, rather than being client focused and understandingthe life/work balance. These executives from the big firms who we interviewedunderstood that this was a different environment, that you had to go out andfind new work, treat everyone with respect and think differently but manysimply couldn’t fit into the culture or know how tochannel it. They wanted to adapt but couldn’t.


Members of the team that have workedin firms where they have had horrendous experiences who understand what it islike to be shouted and screamed at, often adapt quickly as it’sa whole new environment for them. I didn’t get on withmy former boss’s management style, but theexperience did teach me who I wanted to be and didn’twant to be. A tough environment does make you resilient and hardened and thiscan be a good thing; however that is not the way we are run this firm.




Does the company measure itsculture? Are there any culture based KPIs? What else is measured?


Culture and impact of broaderpolicies are harder to measure for KPI purposes, but nonetheless we have thefollowing:


•  Staff retention is a KPI for thecompany and recruitment has not presented problems to the firm as a consequenceof embedded social and collaborative policies.

•  Staff professional progressions is aKPI for future the success of the firm as well, developing specialist, young,energetic professionals who can think innovatively around problems.

•  Social engagement in work drinks is aKPI, to ensure that our personable and sociable side of the firm is maintained.Attendance at these events is always very high and their success is supportedby a separated social team with an independent budget.

•  Employee’svolunteering and CSR enrichment is measured and actively encouraged by thecompany. This both engages the local community but also broadens the skill setof the team and is measured and supported with flexible working time.

•  The client referrals are measuredmonthly, as are clients who return after their work is completed or givefurther instructions part way through. Each client is engaged to find out whythey specifically feel an affinity with our firm and to measure their clientexperience along the way.


Our employees’ happiness, loyalty andcommitment to working above and beyond their expected working terms is themeasurable ROI for most investment into the firm’sculture and ethos.  Happy and engagedemployees will outperform every other employee and the clients can feel theirenthusiasm too.


How do you promote the familyfriendly environment?


We really work hard on creating afamily friendly environment. I have met all of our team member’spartners and been to their houses for dinner. I understand the family impact ifone of our people who has a family at home is working late and make sure theyknow that it’s not taken for granted. We include partners or spouses in companyevents and invite them to bring their children to the office to meet us. Wepromote time off, social time and flexible working and make sure single peopleget the same treatment so that it’s fair acrossthe board.


You do a lot of work withearly stage companies, will that continue?


Yes, definitely. Even though we aregrowing and becoming more recognised as a brand, we want to continue to workwith early stage startups. They are fun, exciting and they throw a lot ofchallenges at you. It’s also a change out of our schedulefrom some of the high level work and can be really inspiring for the lawyerworking with the startup. It’s also agreat way for a junior lawyer to learn to work with a lawyer on a startupproject and think innovatively and out the box.


How do you price for startups?


We are flexible in our pricingstructure for startups. We offer a free one-hour meeting and then fixed fees.We don’t charge by the hour and we aim to charge discountedfixed fees for everything we do over the first two years, depending on how thecompany’s needs progress. We will only startto increase fees when they are better funded and more established and the workevolves. In some cases we will also offer a payment plan. As a specialistpractice, we can adapt quickly and be as agile as the startups are because themarket conditions are changing so quickly.


What is the Startup Capsule?


We set the Startup Capsule to bringtogether different service providers for startups and promote an encompassingplatform for them. We have chosen the best partners for a startup to work withcovering financial advice, accounting, taxation, property and so on. We list all theevents and seminars our firm and our partners are hosting, and will bedeveloping the Capsule as an education hub for startups with the aim of helpingembryonic companies to grow through the stages and scale effectively.




How else are you different to the typical law firm?


Some people prefer working in the mornings some prefer evenings. At our firm it’s up to the person to decide how they want to work. We promote flexible arrangements , subject to an agreed structure, to get the best out of people.

 There really is no hierarchy when it comes to helping, supporting and developing, I will get my hands dirty and assist any of my team that need it.

 Mistakes can happen anywhere and whilst someone’s head rolls in other law firms, that isn’t the case here if the person is honest and we work together to resolve it. It is a key part of the collaborative atmosphere and ethic that we resolve the issue together and work out what went wrong with the structure, to avoid it happening again. All our people take responsibility for mistakes but without fear or reprisal of their jobs, which means things are picked up sooner and it is a happier environment to work within.

 There are mums and dads who work in our firm so we consider their needs. We offer flexible working, remote working, part-time and job share, which a lot of other law firms are frightened of. We find that we get more out of our people if we demonstrate trust and allow work flexibility. We believe that family is important and you need to be able to look after your family. We have hired a great team, we know that our people are committed and we trust them to do the job that’s required wherever they may be working. For fathers, our flexible working allows them to spend more time with their partner and new born. We don’t just offer the standard maternity leave of two weeks and the four weeks that are allowed for unpaid leave: a new father is currently paid 50% of his salary so he can work from home and dip in to the company to meet a client or have a meeting when needed. That way he gets a few months working remotely to spend quality time with his family. This benefits the firm as rather than have someone walking around the office looking like a sleep deprived zombie he’s motivated and committed. Whether you are a mum or a dad or are single, our firm’s benefits are fair to everybody.



 Why the name, A City Law Firm?


When I set up the business I thoughtthat all the other law firms had traditional surnames, as their name, which didn’texpress what they did or make it identifiable as a solicitors practice. Iwanted it to begin with the letter A so we could secure page one on allmarketing literature and so I tried lots of different names and then came upwith A City Law Firm. It does what it says on the tin and optimises well fordigital. Half of the people I spoke to initially hated it and half loved it,but it works.


Apart from new business andhappy clients, how is the firm being recognised in the market?


We have just been awarded the startupbusiness law firm for 2017 and won Most Innovative Law Firm in London in 2016 andwe were listed in the Legal 500. Clients have nominated us for various awardsover the years, which we are very proud of and will be undertaking thereference process again for 2017. Our clients not only provide references butcan be contacted by phone for verification so its wonderful that our clientssupport us in this way.



Other recognition and awards include:


The firm won in 2015 the NTL Awardsin the following categories:

Business Start-Ups Law Firm of theYear in England

Dispute Resolution Law Firm of theYear in England

Employment Law Firm of the Year inEngland

An Albert Award was given to the firmfor its work towards the charity the Albert Kennedy Trust.


The firm has also been awardedM&A Today 2016 Global Awards for:

Law Firm of the Year - DisputeResolution, UK

Most Innovative Law Firm of 2016,London


Wealth & Finance 2016 has awardedA City Law Firm :

Most Outstanding Law Firm of 2016 UK



2016 Global Law Experts AnnualAwards:

Employment Law Firm of the Year inEngland

Business Start-Ups Law Firm of theYear in England

Commercial Law Firm of the Year inEngland


2016 Global 100 Awards:

Law Firm of the Year - Labour andEmployment - United Kingdom

Lawyer Monthly, Legal Awards 2016:

Company Law – Firm of the Year - UK


Corporate Vision Awards:

Legal Expert of the Year in UK


Karen Holden has been short listed invarious years for working mums champion ward and this year has been nominatedfor Best Mum in Business Boss and Best Juggler by Motivating Mums Global group

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