All or nothing
‘Once I had decided to do it, I was single-minded,’ says London-based Suzanne M Reisman, who built her boutique law firm eight years ago. ‘When people asked what I would do if it didn’t work out, I would tell them there was no plan B. It was a bit like Field of Dreams – if you build it, they will come.’
Reisman never intended to set up on her own. She had come from a big firm and enjoyed the camaraderie. She was an American in a different country. But a number of people suggested she take the plunge because there was a gap in the market. ‘They said there were a lot of clients who may be suited to a big firm but preferred working with a sole practitioner,’ she remembers. ‘And because of my holistic approach, they thought I would be very successful and enjoy that.’
Armed with whole-hearted self-belief, Reisman launched her business in 2004, and started from scratch. She found office space in Clerkenwell (she has since moved to Mayfair) and got to work – networking. ‘Private client is a big field,’ she says, ‘and although I had contacts within the industry, I was working with a blank canvas in terms of a client base.’ But Reisman was fortunate and will be forever indebted to those who supported her and recommended her to others in the industry.
The industry was welcoming, and contacts gave her credibility and provided recommendations. ‘We all rise or fall on our ability to work with others,’ says Reisman. ‘You could be the most confident person in the world, but if your peers don’t support you, you won’t get anywhere. It’s similar to the talented actresses who never get a job.’ Looking back on her first year, she admits faith kept her going. Only by the end of year two was her venture really viable.
Reisman enjoys the advantages of developing the business on her terms. ‘For some it’s all about the tax. You might be someone’s technical wizard, but they don’t even want to tell you what they had for breakfast. Different clients need different styles.’
‘Generally, if a client is comfortable with it, I think it is important to talk about the soft issues. I believe that has helped me find the best solutions for my clients.’ Perhaps as much of a psychologist as a lawyer at times, she appreciates how important this part of the service is, and it gives her job satisfaction. ‘People bandy about the term “trusted advisor”,’ she says. ‘In my view it is the client, not the advisor, who decides whether the advisor is trusted, and that designation is granted on a client-by-client basis.’
ABOVE: The judges of the STEP Private Client Awards recognised the success of Reisman’s business model and holistic approach, awarding her Boutique Firm of the Year in 2010
Insisting on fixed fees was another strategic decision in the early days. ‘If someone agrees to pay you a fixed fee, they can’t quibble about your bill at the end, and that gave me a lot of stability,’ she says. ‘If you don’t have other lawyers you can count on to bring in revenue, you need to know that your bill is going to be paid.’ Not having the support of partners also meant single-handedly meeting a full range of professional contacts. ‘I need to know as many people as possible in our field, and I really made it my business to try to do this,’ she says. ‘Whenever I meet people my thought is: “Whether or not you engage me, my clients may need you.” I need to know who the best people are to service my clients’ needs across specialities and jurisdictions.’
Reflecting on the direction of her sole practice, Reisman had to make choices. Fortunately, she made wise ones. She could have rejected overseas prospects because of time and expense, but travel is her passion and she enjoys getting to know other cultures. ‘It’s helpful to travel and know other professionals in other jurisdictions,’ she says. ‘It gives people comfort as well. Some clients like to see a commitment to their region. It varies. I think my practice is richer for the fact that I have taken advantage of the opportunities presented by attending STEP conferences and travelled to different conferences in different jurisdictions. If a client comes to see me in London and says, “I have property in Singapore and I’m being transferred to Hong Kong,” that’s great. I know people all over the world now.’
So does occupying a niche space provide an edge or a disadvantage? Reisman says it’s horses for courses. She competes with big law firms, and some clients will prefer to hire a big firm. ‘I compete through what I call “open architecture for lawyers”,’ she explains. ‘I can call whoever I think is best to assist me in other jurisdictions or other specialities. I am not limited to the people in a particular firm, and I am always the client.’ The one-stop shopping some clients prefer, which more firms are taking on board, doesn’t pose much of a threat, she says, as the private client market is vast and many clients prefer the discretion of hiring a boutique firm. ‘People often ask me how I keep up to date. It doesn’t matter whether you are in a big firm or whether you’re on your own, you either read what comes out or you don’t. In fact, I have more incentive to keep up to date because I don’t have a larger firm to fall back on.’
The STEP Journal is one way of following industry developments, says Reisman, who joined the Society in 1998. And she has used her STEP membership to the fullest. ‘It’s beneficial on all levels,’ she says, ‘from a technical perspective, having contacts in other jurisdictions if you need advice, in keeping up with changes in the law and with friends. There are some people in various parts of the world that I consider dear friends. On an international level, my practice would not be as successful as it is without STEP.’
Business is very much international now. In the beginning, her work was largely international estate planning for US families resident in the UK. Today, most of her practice is for foreign families throughout the world with US issues, including trust and company structures, voluntary disclosures, expatriation and international philanthropy. Reisman’s practice has grown; her plan has worked out.
‘One thing that I have learned is that you don’t keep knocking on a closed door,’ she says. ‘If you do not have a great rapport with someone or you do not have a good working relationship, you let it go. There are so many open doors. Life is long and you may not be doing business with someone one day, but two years from now you might have the opportunity to work together. Persistence pays off in terms of achieving your goals, but sometimes you have to put your ego aside.’
To that end, practitioners need to realise their limits, she advises. ‘The days of the general practitioner are gone. Knowing a bit about something is not enough; you have to carve out your field of expertise,’ she says. As a boutique firm, she’s a one-woman show. The client is buying Reisman as much as her private client services; she is her brand: ‘I used to say, “The good news is that you get me and the bad news is that you get me!”’
The content displayed here is subject to our disclaimer. Read more