Marleen Mouton and Yolande Meyvis, Co-founders of Laun

How many associates think of starting their own law firm? But how many actually do? If some female lawyers chances of partnership change after having children, then what can they do?

Several years ago, two corporate lawyers, Marleen Mouton and Yolande Meyvis, were faced with these issues. So they decided to create their own firm, Laun (short for "Lawyers Unlimited"), specialising in corporate and corporate finance law.

Brussels Legal spoke with Ms. Mouton and Ms. Meyvis about why they decided to create their own firm and, with Laun's first year anniversary approaching, how the experience has been so far.

BL: What are your professional backgrounds?

YM: We are both Belgian-qualified lawyers, registered with the Brussels Bar (Flemish Order). I have been in practice for about a dozen years and Marleen for about eleven years.

I started practising with Van Bael & Bellis (in the areas of antitrust and antidumping) and then moved to Ashursts and then to Lontings & Partners, where I practised corporate law.

MM: I practised with Loef, Claes Verbeke, now part of A&O, and then did an LLM at the University of Pennsylvania (including following courses at Wharton Business School). I was then in Freshfields' Corporate Finance department for over four years.

BL: You have set up your own law firm. Where did the idea come from and why did you choose that option rather than moving in-house or working as a public official?

MM: The idea to create our own law firm was initiated by Yolande.

YM: As I was about to have my second child I stopped working at Lontings & Partners. I considered my options at the time and decided I wanted to continue to practice, but in my own way.

Marleen and I had first met each other professionally (rather than at University) and she was also pregnant at the time.

MM: When I became pregnant I was sure I was unlikely to progress to the partnership. I enjoyed the work I did and wanted to continue to practice but, like Yolande, on my own terms.

YM: My interest in creating my own firm was not new. Ever since I started as an associate I had an interest in issues like how a law firm is managed, what is its organisational structure. Back then I did not know anything about those subjects (like the difference between equity and salaried partners) but it was always an aspect of private practice I found interesting and wanted to get involved in further.

Regarding the alternatives, in-house was not attractive for me. I think some private practitioners think it is an easier option, particularly when you have children. We have female friends who are working in-house here and in London and they work very hard, under a lot of pressure. The satisfaction level is not always so great, certainly not as much as is assumed by outsiders.

The in-house function can also be quite limited. Some companies have the view 'you are the lawyer†and so you can only ever have a certain, limited role. It is often only possible to change role when moving from a legal to business function.

MM: It does depend on the particular company, but in-house positions are often treated like a cost-centre and not a profit-centre. It means the position is less appreciated than would be the case in other organisations.

Large organisations, such as national and international public institutions, are quite 'political†in nature. We were not interested in working in those types of environment. But fundamentally we wanted to continue to practice.

BL: Having the desire to set up your own law firm is important, but what was the potential business opportunity you saw that would enable your firm to succeed?

YM: Our firm specialises in corporate and corporate finance law. Our combined professional experience gave us insight into this particular market place.

We saw at one level there were huge multinational and national clients being advised by the large international law firms on Belgian matters. At another level, medium-to-large clients were being advised by large national firms (such as Eubelius, Lontings, Altius). But at another level, that of growing small-to-medium clients, there was no clear legal service provider; it was a bit of "jungle".

These potential clients were growing and had certain legal needs. But internally they were not thinking about their legal infrastructure, which makes sense given their focus is to continue growing their core business. We saw an opportunity to develop client relationships at that level. To provide a level of service that international clients expect, but focused at that local business level.

BL: And what practical issues did you face once you agreed to form this partnership?

YM: We started by establishing our formal business relationship. We were used to advising clients about that step, but it was strange to have to do it for ourselves!

We agreed a Letter of Intent outlining what would happen if things go wrong between us and it is something we review and revise every three months. It is like a contract between us and it is very important to have it in writing. We agreed from the start we would not argue about money - everything is split 50:50.

MM: We trust each other 100%. But it is important to get the basis for our professional relationship settled in writing.

There were practical issues we had to deal with concerning setting up the office infrastructure. These are issues you do not often have to think about as a private practice associate and we had no experience about them. We have offices in our homes and leased our IT setup and hardware (PDAs, laptops). We have received excellent support from our accountants (who coincidentally had also first started on their own in a similar way to us).

YM: The law is a people business and it was necessary to have a good communications/PR firm to advise us about issues like branding and marketing from the start. I did some research and was fortunate to find our advisors through a friend of a friend. The company has helped us regarding the firm name, logo, website, business cards. A theme we have adopted so far for communications and marketing is "small is beautiful".

BL: How has that theme been applied?

YM: For example with our marketing we did not start by making a lot of noise about our launch. We had a small opening event at the renovated brewery in Mechelen where we targeted a small group of clients. It was a "meet and greet" networking event and sufficiently intimate to be meaningful.

BL: How effective has your marketing been over this first year? And how has that tied into your business case?

YM: Marketing has been a learning experience in lots of ways. For example how to talk to potential clients for the first time and how to use your network of friends and media. I am amazed by the interest we have received from large corporations.

MM: We have done a lot of direct marketing - mainly presentations - with potential clients over the past year and learnt a lot.

Our initial idea was to target successful entrepreneurs who need local expertise on corporate matters. We found that amongst this group often there was no one person with the General Counsel role. So we were dealing with the main business people, who sometimes had little awareness of some of the legal issues they faced. Because they had to focus on the fundamental aspects of their business, they were not so pro-active about legal issues. We have been able to develop the legal aspects of their business.

Unexpectedly we also found that some large national and international clients have also had an immediate interest in our services. The General Counsel and legal managers at such organisations have been impressed that we have set up on our own and have been very supportive. Some said we were very brave to start on our own. They were prepared to short-list us for Belgian law work and have invited us to pitch for work. These clients are not just at the national level, for example Deutsche Bank in London has instructed us.

BL: Is there a particular attraction for such international clients in instructing you? Do you compete on price?

MM: A lot of corporate work is conducted on the basis of fixed quotes. We know the market value of transactional work and we don't simply compete on price. When clients instruct us they know we as partners are doing the work. With large firms a partner will pass the work to junior lawyers. We really compete on our attitude and approach to the client and product quality.

BL: It sounds like finding clients has been straightforward?

YM: No not all. Our professional networks were important but we have largely had to start from scratch. Being independent means we have to keep an eye out for opportunities. We had to be prepared to contact potential clients and get an inevitable amount of PFOs (Polite Fuck Offs)!

BL: Your firm has started with the name Lawyers Unlimited. Why did you choose that name?

MM: In starting our own firm it was important that the firm name captured the spirit of what we are doing. Traditionally there is a formality in the relationship between local lawyers and clients - as if the client is privileged to receive the attention of the lawyer. It is also traditional to take the surnames of the partners for the firm name.

"Lawyers Unlimited" is meant to capture a spirit of being unlimited in our approachability and a desire to solve clients' issues. It does not relate to an unlimited number of lawyers!

YM: The Brussels Bar did not approve "Lawyers Unlimited" for our website domain name as, apparently, the name is too generic and it would prevent other lawyers from using it. So we are going to rebrand as Laun - an abbreviation of Lawyers Unlimited - as is currently used on our website (www.laun.be).

BL: What has the reaction been from friends and former colleagues?

MM: Positive. Some former colleagues have admitted they do not have guts to do what we have done. We have an ambiguous feeling: being not bothered about what others think and yet there is a desire for our firm to be taken seriously.

BL: As the firm's first anniversary approaches, what are your thoughts about this initial start up period?

MM: I feel like I am having fun again and am completely motivated by my work. Being your own boss makes you think like that.

YM: It is fun and more relaxed with no office politics. You can be yourself without being nice for the sake of being nice.

As Marleen says, there is a totally different level of motivation when it is your own business. There is more control as you are able to balance your professional lifestyle. We work from home and can cover for each other if the situation demands it. Also, compared to the frustration of being stuck in an office, there are lots of meetings with clients at their offices and we can see the impact of our advice on their business.

BL: Do you regret not setting up the business sooner?

MM: Any earlier would have been premature both in terms of professional experience and business knowledge. It was important to have the right experience before starting on our own.

BL: What advice would you give to other lawyers thinking of taking the same path?

YM: It is not simple to start your own business and do not underestimate what is involved.

Being your own boss will not give you an easy life or an easier life compared to working in established law firms. But it can give you greater satisfaction in what you do.

You have to be clear about what you want and pursue it with determination. You need to be self-disciplined and have to want to work hard.

Do expect a lot of hassle and PFOs. But if you have the enthusiasm to go for it then you should at least try.

MM: Also make sure you have the support of friends and family. It is a big step and their support is important.

YM: Prior to our partnership I worked briefly on my own. It was no fun, in fact next to impossible. The success of our business so far is down to two people working together. This business requires a team and neither of us would succeed as a sole proprietorship.

MM: There are times when one of us feels in low spirits and the other person can lift them. The basis of a solid partnership is extremely important.

Also when pitching to potential clients it makes a difference knowing there is a team, rather than a person, behind the business.

Perhaps we have taken a more female approach to establishing our business. We started small, investing our own money and have seen how the business has developed. We had no expectations and our ambition has grown as the business has grown. Maybe two male lawyers would have had a different approach: financing their start-up on a different scale and starting in a bigger way?

BL: And finally what are your plans for the future?

MM: The firm is only one year old so we cannot look too far ahead already! We are looking to grow, starting with recruiting an administrator and a lawyer with 3-4 years experience.

YM: It has been noticeable how our ambition has grown as the business has proceeded. I would say perhaps we will grow to 10-15 lawyers at some point. Wait and see!

BL: Good luck and thank you for your time.