Are Gold Coast boutiques blazing a new trail?
According to five business owners, there is a great opportunity for those wanting to establish their own practices to break away from traditional thinking – and where better to be, they say, than the Gold Coast?
When asked why she chose to launch her firm, Iconic Legal, in January of this year and during the age of coronavirus, principal and director Lana Woltman (pictured, top left) simply responded: “Why not?”
“I am the only person who can make the choice to go after my dreams and to make my life what I want it to be. It has been a dream to start my own law firm. I believe now is as good a time as ever to just go for it, to take the leap of faith and to back myself completely,” she espoused.
“At just a couple of months into this journey, I can say that starting Iconic Legal is the best thing I have ever done.”
She’s not the only one. Anecdotally, Lawyers Weekly understands there is a proliferation of SME law practices emerging, or being planned, across the country as the market turns its attention to a post-pandemic landscape, with Australia’s vaccine roll-out commencing. According to those Lawyers Weekly has spoken with, Gold Coast-based practitioners are especially motivated to explore and leverage the professional opportunities arising from the past year and leap headfirst into business ownership.
The rise of sole practitioners on the Gold Coast, Williams Solicitors principal Matthew Williams (pictured, bottom right) – whose firm launched in March 2021 – is something that should be welcomed.
“There is an abundance of talented solicitors on the Gold Coast that are focused on delivering legal services to Gold Coasters and the collegiate nature of the profession on the Gold Coast means that clients will be the primary beneficiaries of this rise in the sole/boutique practice, as they should be,” he proclaimed.
Setting up on the Gold Coast
Ms Woltman is a Gold Coast local, having been born and raised in the city. She retains a “very strong connection” to her hometown, she said, particularly given the down-to-earth nature of its business community, which likes to spend time with one another, expand networks and help one another succeed.
Such a culture, she opined, gives lawyers such as her the confidence to start their own firms.
“Gone are the days where the big firm name and reputation has the edge over the rest of the market. I believe clients are smarter, savvier and more switched on than ever before and their expectations are changing,” she submitted.
“Clients want excellent, personalised service, flexibility with communication, they want to text and call their lawyer directly, they want to choose where and when they meet with their lawyer, how the legal service is offered, and to know that their lawyer really does care about them.”
Small firms, Ms Woltman continued, can offer flexibility, personality, and one-on-one personalised service that the big firms can’t.
“I think this is the start of a new trend in law,” she deduced.
“I believe we are going to see a lot more boutique firms open over the next five to 10 years, and Gold Coast lawyers are leading the way.”
Nearly one year ago, Lawyers Weekly published the story of Rise Legal, which managing director Helen Kay (pictured, centre) founded after being made redundant at the onset of the pandemic. It was a blessing in disguise, she said, as it was the push she needed. “Funny how things work out,” she mused.
“I had done all the ground work and I was ready to finally start my own firm (it had been a long, hard wait I can tell you!). I had identified my target client, knew who they were, where they were and what they needed. I was also very clear on my point of difference, my specific offering to clients and had built up a good network of potential referral sources,” she outlined.
“When you have all that in place you are good to go!”
This is certainly so for Gold Coast-based practitioners launching their own practices, Ms Kay continued: “It is a close community but we must be doing something right as we get repeat referrals from many different sources both here and from across the country.”
Opening a practice was always a goal for Mr Williams, which would allow him to operate in accordance with his core values, he said. The decision to take that leap of faith mid-pandemic, he explained, “was actually quite an easy one”.
“COVID-19 has forced a lot of service-based professions (not just the legal profession) to be more reliant on technology to provide their service to clients. The feedback I was getting from clients was that the shift to a more digital interface with their lawyers was actually well received and integrated into their lives much easier,” he said.
“My thinking was that why not make this the norm instead of the exception?”
For Kollrepp Law director Matt Kollrepp (pictured, bottom left), the pandemic also proved to be fortuitous timing: “The timing was right for me in terms of where I was in my career and I had to decide whether to continue down a career path of ownership in an existing firm or set up my own. I chose the latter.”
What this past year has taught lawyers, he hypothesised, is that they are capable of working independently without the umbrella and support structure of an existing practice and realising their full potential – “and where else better to live and work than the beautiful Gold Coast?” he asked.
“Innovative lawyers are in some cases moving away from the traditional CBD working environment and space to more flexible and open working structures. Specialisation in the future is key.”
Rubix Legal founder and principal Nikolina Palasrinne (pictured, top right) founded her firm in November 2019, just before COVID-19 hit. When it did start impacting the market and daily operations in March 2020, she was ready.
“I was fortunate because the onset of COVID-19 proved that my business model could cater to and adapt to the changing whims of business and life,” she said.
“I launched Rubix Legal because I was tired of the old ways of law and the limitations this put on both client service and job satisfaction. I wanted to provide a more personalised and meaningful experience for my clients but I didn’t have the freedom to do this while working for traditional firms. I knew I had more to offer and I wasn’t doing myself or my clients any favours by holding back any longer – so I took the leap.
“I think COVID-19 has given new solo practitioners the confidence to break free from traditional employment and have a go at creating something unique.”
For any practitioner planning such a move, however, Ms Kay recommended that you “invest heavily” in the business and yourself.
“You need good systems in place, a team of non-legal experts and time and energy spent networking to grow the business. You can’t do this successfully on shoe string. Now is not the time to look to traditional law firms for inspiration,” she warned.
“Where possible, we try to do everything completely the opposite and this strategy is paying off, the clients love it! These days I see myself more as a ‘legal innovator’ or ‘legal solutions’ provider than a ‘lawyer’ and that excites me.”
Reflecting on the proliferation of boutique practices, Mr Williams said he does not feel that the age of coronavirus is the root cause of such new firms – the pandemic has simply sped up a process that was gradually underway anyway.
“I believe that the legal landscape on the Gold Coast is currently experiencing somewhat of a changing of the guard,” he determined.
“The older general practice firms that cover all practice areas are becoming the minority and the rise of the sole practitioner/boutique practice which tend to operate in a very distinct niche is becoming the norm. I think this is a great development as it promotes a healthy level of collaboration amongst the legal community.
“The Gold Coast, in particular, is a fantastic place to practice law and I have found nothing but positive support from my colleagues in the profession.”
Hurdles to overcome
The Gold Coast has experienced, Mr Williams outlined, an “unprecedented increase” in people relocating from interstate over the last six months, creating a challenge for firms based in the city to keep up with demand for legal services.
“As a sole/boutique practice there is sometimes an urge to take on all matter types in an effort to keep the lights on and the bills paid. This is a trap that firm owners need to be mindful of and avoid as it can lead to poor quality of legal services being given to the client,” he said.
“In my opinion, it is better to use all of this additional work that may not be in the scope of the firm’s usual services as referral work to other practitioners in an effort to build rapport with them and hopefully result in referrals back to you.”
Ms Kay agreed, noting people are moving up “in droves (particularly from Melbourne)”, and during the height of the pandemic, firms were buying businesses for clients “site unseen”. This surge is one she does not expect to dissipate any time soon.
“The Gold Coast is one of Australia’s fastest growing cities, is a great place to do business and invest and an even better place to live. But, given the influx of people moving to the Gold Coast I see the main challenge for people wanting to run law firms from here being finding somewhere to live and also finding good staff,” she noted.
One subsequent challenge that will arise on the back of this, Ms Palasrinne added, will be retaining unique points of difference.
“The Gold Coast is a much smaller market than other parts of the country. We need to show that regardless the Gold Coast not only has excellent legal services on offer but it is also at the forefront of this era of change and capable of catering to changing client needs,” she advised.
With any hurdles that legal-business owners face, however, the scale will be dependent on one’s capacity to consider a glass to be half-full, versus half-empty, Ms Woltman posited.
“There have always been, and will always be, issues and challenges starting a new law firm or business. There will always be things that are within our control and things that are outside of our control,” she said.
“I choose to focus on the controllables and the possibilities. I am a dreamer and I am an action taker.”
Opportunities to grasp
Regardless of such challenges there are significant business advantages looming for boutique law firms on the Gold Coast that can leverage them.
Mr Williams has lived in the city for 26 years, he recalled, and in that time he has seen enormous change – “not just to the skyline, but to the diversity of industry”.
“While the Gold Coast is still very much heavily reliant on tourism and hospitality, there are a significant number of businesses operating in all types of industries including health and wellness, supplements, technology and engineering. There is huge potential for a law practice on the Gold Coast to get involved with not only the tourism and hospitality sector but also these other industries to offer their assistance in whatever way is required,” he argued.
Mr Kollrepp supported this, noting that with so many people migrating to the Gold Coast, lawyers should be looking to capitalise with clients who may not be accustomed to the existing firms and structures – something he said can “level the playing field to an extent”.
From here, Ms Kay detailed, boutiques in the city must continue to challenge the norm.
“The old way does not work anymore and clients are wising up and looking for better alternatives,” she submitted.
“Commercial clients are looking for practical advice, delivered efficiently and for a fixed fee. They want a legal team that understand their business and actually take the time to communicate with them. We think outside the box and try and solve our clients’ problems rather than pigeon holing them into a service type and squeezing every last dollar out of them.”
Planning for the future
For all five practitioners interviewed for this story, there is much to look forward to. Mr Kollrepp is relishing the responsibility for a burgeoning business in a market filled with growth potential, and Mr Williams is keen to build lasting relationships beyond one-off transactions, while moulding a practice in line with his base principles of honesty and integrity.
Taking it all into account, Ms Palasrinne remarked: “What’s not to like about running a firm on the Gold Coast?”
“Great beaches, less traffic and of course such a vibrant community of business, industry and people. Running a new firm here allows me to practice what I preach – joy in work and life,” she surmised.
Ms Kay has a similar mindset: “I love living and working on the Gold Coast. It is all about energy and authenticity here and Rise Legal embodies everything Gold Coast. It is a place people want to work at and work with. I am an entrepreneur and working in traditional law firms felt like my wings had been clipped! If I have an idea, I want to run with it. Luckily, we have no fear and will throw money and resources at a strategy that we know will pay off.”
Ms Woltman, for her part, has her eyes on the prize.
“Right now, I am really enjoying the journey, I have the fire in my belly, I am focused, I have so much gratitude and I am pumped to create something that is totally mine,” she concluded.