Law: When life becomes something special: Sharon Wallach meets a solicitor who gave up a partnership and found happiness as an independent planning and licensing consultant

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The Independent Online
Changes forced on the legal profession in recent years have persuaded a growing number of solicitors to go it alone: some have set up as sole practitioners, others as freelance advocates, and a few - such as Howard Venables - have carved niches out of their specialist areas.

Mr Venables has been running his own planning and licensing consultancy, based in Frome, Somerset, for the past 15 months. The business has already acquired some momentum - a dozen or so firms regularly provide work - and his quality of life has vastly improved.

In 1986 Mr Venables, who qualified as a solicitor more than 10 years ago, moved from a job in South Wales to manage a new branch office in Bath for a firm whose three satellite offices were linked by fax and computer. Six months later he became a partner and began to specialise in liquor licensing and charity formation.

In 1990 he bought out the Bath practice, merged it with another local firm and took over the role of planning specialist from a retiring partner. But the recession had drastically cut the amount of planning and development work available for a small firm, and he found himself having to consider whether to change his area of specialisation.

'In September 1992, my wife began part-time work as a teacher,' Mr Venables says, 'and this allowed me to contemplate my own career.'

With the support of his former partners, he decided to establish himself as an independent consultant offering his planning and licensing services on an hourly basis to local law firms.

'I am not a sole practitioner in the usual way,' he says, 'as clients don't come to my office, I don't hold any client money and don't have direct contact, at least initially, with the client.'

Most of the dozen or so Somerset and Avon firms that regularly instruct him are too small to have in-house experts. 'I form part of the team for as long as necessary,' he says. 'The benefit for the firms is that they can buy in as little or as much as they want.'

A typical task for him, he says, could be a new supermarket that needs planning permissions, agreements to sort out access roads, car parks and roundabouts, and liquor licences. 'I am introduced to the firm's client as a consultant. Once that connection has been made, the fee earner involved and I agree how the client should be approached.

'The more times I have worked with a firm, the more leeway I get on how to deal with the client. The firms aren't concerned that the client will try to approach me direct for a second job later on - I wouldn't be able to act as I don't practise on my own account.' Nor does he collect payment direct from the client, but bills the firm at his hourly rate of pounds 50.

The first year, Mr Venables admits, was difficult because 'people had to find out about me. Law firms are a fairly cautious group of people.' And on his own admission, he was not easy to live with when he did not have enough to do.

Now, he says, he is not making a fortune, but is keeping his head above water. 'Bearing in mind that lawyers in small firms are having a hard time, I am probably doing better than most,' he says. His business overheads average pounds 700 a month, which gives him a low break-even target. 'All I need to do at home is produce documents. Usually I work at someone else's office and use their secretarial skills.'

Nor is he encumbered with a large overdraft. 'Other lawyers my age (he will be 40 later this year) have business overdrafts that make personal mortgages look like drops in the ocean.'

Working in a partnership, even as a partner, it is difficult to avoid the basic hours, not to mention what Mr Venables calls the 'macho bit' of vying to arrive at the office earliest and leave latest. He does work long hours, but that is his choice. 'I have a completely different lifestyle now,' he says. 'I have two daughters, aged five and three, and I can organise my working life to see them at bedtimes and even during the day.'

And he now understands a lot more about running a business. 'One of my reasons for leaving the partnership was that it is a very difficult vehicle to drive. Partners get blase about spending partnership money because it doesn't feel like theirs.'

For the present, he plans to acquire more good-quality work. As his local reputation grows among solicitors and developers, the only problem he foresees is the need to avoid conflicts of interest.

To the firms who employ him, he is probably more useful than an articled clerk, he says. 'My fees are low enough for the firm to be able to shave its costs as well as see its client care improving - and the client is impressed by having an expert on site all day.

'I aim to do five hours' chargeable work a day, and I find this easier without the endless management meetings, interruptions from colleagues and supervision of junior staff which has to fit into a partner's day.'