"They told me I can't: Have a baby at 18, go to uni with a young child, be a lawyer with tattoos, run my own law firm. But here I am... with a beautiful 20-year-old daughter, studied at Oxford, lots of tattoos, my own law firm. Never listen to the naysayers"
Alice founded Stephenson Law in 2017, and it’s fair to say that she’s not what most people expect to see when they think of a lawyer and law firm owner. Tackling each stereotype head-on, she’s on a mission to build a forward-thinking, innovative law firm which puts people at the heart of everything it does.
1. You are a tattooed entrepreneur who had a baby at 18, studied at several universities including Oxford and now have your own law firm, Stephenson Law. When you fell pregnant you were told that your life was over. Where did you find the courage to keep going and to achieve all you have? I’ve never felt particularly courageous! I had very little support when I fell pregnant at 18 and I was thrown very quickly into a difficult situation; I had nowhere to live and no money. I was in my final year at school and considered dropping out, but I knew I’d regret that decision later on so I decided to stick with it and finish my A- levels. When I took my A levels I was 7 months’ pregnant, living in housing authority accommodation and work part-time to support myself. I scraped through my exams with grades that were good enough to get me onto a Sociology degree at Bath University, which I started the following year. When my daughter was very young I took one step at a time without really knowing where I going. I set myself one goal and put all my time and energy into it until I achieved it, when I would set the next goal. Eventually, you realise how far the small steps take you.
2. Looking at all you've achieved - if you could go back and tell your teenage self one thing - what would it be? It’s all going to be ok! Those words would have been very comforting to hear.
3. After graduating from Uni, what happened next?
After I graduated from my first degree I fell into an HR job in the NHS and starting studying a post-grad diploma in HR management. After a couple of years, when Lydia was 7, I realised that my heart wasn’t really in it and I really wanted to be a solicitor. I had to go back to Uni for 2 years to be able to do this, which I couldn’t afford to do unless I found a law firm willing to offer me a training contract and sponsor me to go back to Uni.
This was a big challenge because many law firms still assess you on the basis of your A levels, and mine weren’t good enough. I chose 10 firms to apply to and introduced myself to each of their heads of recruitment to explain my situation and managed to get an invitation to 1 assessment day. The pressure was really on and I knew I had to do my best, and I was thrilled to get an offer from a really great firm.
So, in 2007, I was back at Uni studying law for 2 years, and then worked as a trainee solicitor for 2 years after that, qualifying in 2011. I worked as a solicitor in private practice for 3 years and tried to find a law firm that I enjoyed working for - and I couldn't do it.
I really struggled and I initially thought that the problem was with me, that I couldn't find somewhere that I fitted in. But then I started to become a little bit more aware of the cultures and the environment that I was working in and started to see issues with them, especially in terms of the way that women were being treated. I've always been somebody that's wanted to express myself, whether through what I say, or wear, or any other way I can. I've never been the type of person that naturally conforms and falls into line, and I think that's fundamentally why I couldn't find the right law firm for me because I’m not the kind of person that they're looking for.
So, having worked in private practice for about three years I actually decided that I was going to leave law because I just didn't know what else I could do. So I left, but I was completely stumped about what I would do next. While I was trying to figure this out I got offered some legal consultancy work and I accepted that, because I still had bills to pay! I thought I'd just do that until I figured out something better to do, and it took me three years of working as a legal consultant before I realized that actually, what I really wanted to do was to start my own law firm.
So that's what I did, I started Stephenson Law in 2017 – I had just had my third child and he was four months old when I started. So many people told me I wouldn't be able to do it, that it's not possible, that the insurance would be too expensive, that I'd never be able to grow it, that I'd never be able to have a holiday… all of these stories from people who said that they had tried but not been able to do it. I don't really know how hard they actually tried, but they were right to a certain extent - there were a lot of obstacles and there were a lot of points where I could have easily turned around and said, “it’s was just too difficult, let's forget it!”. But I didn't, I just kept going. And now we’ve been awarded ‘Boutique Law Firm of the Year’ and we have lawyers from top London firms asking if they can work for us...
4. You founded your own law firm in 2017 and you're committed to doing things differently - where did your interest in Law stem from and what do you hope to achieve?
I get asked a lot ‘why law?’, which is a difficult question because I don't have a very good answer, but I liked the idea of being intellectually stimulated and challenged and the variety that comes from the role - and I think from the outside looking into the profession it can look like a really good place to be. I was also looking for a career that would give me and my daughter some stability and to prove a point to those that said I would never make anything of myself when I fell pregnant! Now I want to prove that you can run a law firm that allows people to be themselves; that we don't have to try and pigeonhole everybody into these little boxes and stifle everybody's individuality and creativity; that it is possible to be a law firm and to be innovative and driven by technology, and inclusive of all of these things that I'm really passionate about. 5. You've mentioned before that a big issue in the legal profession is a lack of inclusion and diversity. What needs to change and what can we do as a collective?
The legal industry is seriously behind other industries with many old fashioned perspectives prevalent within it today. Most law firms are filled with clones, where diversity of appearance and thought are unwelcome and unappreciated and the concept of individuality is totally alien. Women constitute less than a quarter of law firm owners, but more than half of those entering the profession and many decide to leave when they want to start a family. I think that the problem initially lies in the recruitment stage into the industry. The barriers to get into the industry are really high, the fact that (in the UK) you have to have £10-15k to be able to do the legal practice course, for example, is prohibitively expensive for the majority of the population. I spoke to a law fair organiser recently, who was running a virtual law fair, who was segmenting the attendees at their careers fairs into students that attended Russell Group Universities and students that attended non-Russell Group universities. They were actually dividing people attending the careers fair because the sponsoring law firms were wanting to target a particular type of student. So there’s a real problem with people getting into university, and people accessing the education they need to become a lawyer, and then the prejudice that exists in these law firms. Some law firms are still asking, in the recruitment stages, what schools applicants went to - and it's just bizarre that these things are still happening! There’s lots of noise being made about the fact that “they're changing their processes”, and that “they're becoming more inclusive” - but it's just not happening fast enough. It can’t be because of the terrible stories that I’m still hearing about. And then we've got the whole issue that, even if you can get into the industry - and typically women don't have as much difficulty getting into the industry as I think the balance of men and women at entry level is fairly equal - women aren't staying in the industry. They're not progressing into the top leadership positions and that, for similar reasons why I decided to leave, is just because there are so many barriers that women have to progress through that men don't have to, and it can just be quite an unpleasant place to be. Plus, if you're wanting to have a family and children then lots of women are just thinking that they can't be bothered - partnership is not an attractive proposition. There are so many problems to solve, it’s incredibly complex.
6. What would your advice be for young women interested in law who are currently thinking about their future career? A career in law can be brilliant, but it can also be awful. My advice would be to not allow yourself to get swept up in the process and put your career in the hands of others. You need to decide what you want, take control and make it happen. Otherwise, it can be very unfulfilling. 7. One of The Female Lead's themes is to 'Find Strength in Setbacks'- can you give us an example of when you've had to apply this. I’m a big believer that you only fail when you give up. As a founder and CEO, I experience setbacks on an almost daily basis, and the most recent one that comes to mind is the pandemic. We had lots of plans for 2020 that we weren’t able to implement due to circumstances out of our control. Once I got past the initial frustration, anxiety and disappointment, I realised that I needed to prioritise generating an additional revenue stream for my business that wasn’t solely dependent on our lawyers’ time. The challenge with running a law firm, or any business which sells expertise, is that the amount of money you can make will always be restricted by the amount of time you have. I wanted to find an alternative way that we could make money to make us more secure. So, since April last year, I’ve been building a content hub for startups called Flamenco which will be launching soon. It’s a low-cost subscription that gives startup founders access to all the documents and resources they need to get their legals right, and it’s going to be really good!
8. What's next for you? I’m very focussed on growing my business at the moment, and launching Flamenco is a big priority. The last few months have obviously been challenging, but I’ve been extremely fortunate that I’ve been able to keep my business going. One of the things lockdown has taught us is that it really is possible to work from anywhere, and this led me to move to Amsterdam last summer where I’m running my business from. We are also recruiting new team members from all over the place, and it’s great to no longer be restricted by geographical boundaries. This has resulted in us finding some really talented people to join our team, and I’m excited about what 2021 has in store!
More about Alice:
You’ll mostly find Alice in jeans or gym wear drinking green tea and cycling around Amsterdam. Her straight-talking, authentic approach has resulted in rapid growth for her firm and led to her being named by Business Leader as a ‘business leader set to take 2021 by storm’ and Innovate UK as a ‘Woman in Innovation’. Alice is one of the leading social media influencers in the industry. An advocate for inclusion and innovation in law, she talks widely about how firms need to get better at embracing individuality and how lawyers need to be braver in challenging the status quo. Alice’s goal is to inspire young women to challenge the perceived barriers to success and see that anything is possible.