Legal tips for setting up your new business by We Love Pets Franchise Support Solicitor, Nicola Walker.
‘Spending a few hundred pounds on legal advice when starting up your business could prevent you having to pay thousands further down the line.’
Nicola is the principal / solicitor at Walker Thomas Solicitors in London and also the recommended go-to-solicitor for We Love Pets franchisees.
We asked Nicola a few questions to find out all about her, to extract some insiders tips and to help you get to know her a little more.
Did you always want a career in law?
I left school in Scotland and moved down to Reading where I achieved a BA in Business. I was determined to work in HR when I was 18 years old. However, whilst studying I was given a paralegal role at a specialist criminal defence firm in London working on serious high value fraud and money laundering cases, when my obsession with law began. The senior partner, Simon Rose, then offered for his firm to fund my academic fees enabling me to study law and the professional course undertaken by all solicitors (LPC).
Wow, how wonderful to be recognised and offered that opportunity. So, how long have you been a practising solicitor?
I was admitted onto the Law Society Solicitors Roll in March 2007, so 10 and 1/2 years (the half is always important!).
Absolutely! So what inspired you to run your own practice?
I had the benefit of some very generous people who offered their encouragement, time and resources to help me start up.
Despite having had the pleasure of previously being employed by some amazing people over the years I have seen decisions being made that I would have done very differently. Now I get to make all the decisions. I get to decide the type work I do, when I work, where I work and who I work with.
Some small business owners / start-ups see legal fees as quite a huge expense, so may try to deal with issues themselves. Is this recommended?
If you have the time and resources to undertake the necessary research yourself, there is no reason why a lawyer needs to be instructed. I would suggest reverting to a lawyer to lookover your documentation and confirm that it offers adequate protection to your business, and of course it’s legal.
Don’t be scared to approach a law firm for a quote. If the firm starts charging you the second they have a telephone discussion with you – then find another solicitor. Walker Thomas Solicitors offer fixed fee prices for a number of standard legal documents. Don’t be put off by a firm quoting hourly rates. Legal advice and documentation for start-ups need not be expensive. Spending a few hundred pounds on legal advice when starting up your business could prevent you having to pay thousands further down the line.
Jo White, founder of We Love Pets has a very cost efficient relationship with Walker Thomas Solicitors. Jo regularly researches the need for such documentation, drafts it and sends the material to my firm pretty much in its final form. Walker Thomas Solicitors often only makes a couple of amendment recommendations.
‘Walker Thomas Solicitors is always happy to offer guidance to small or new businesses who have limited means.’
Do you recommend small business owners identify a law firm to represent them in advance of any issues arising?
Yes – by ignoring the issue or ‘guessing’ how is best to deal with it, could end up costing you greatly. Obtain some advice before matters escalate.
Walker Thomas Solicitors is always happy to offer guidance to small or new businesses who have limited means. I believe by offering some free guidance and advice to you when you need it, and further provide affordable drafting you will come back to us time after time.
What do you find is the biggest legal expense for small businesses?
Defending or bringing Court or Tribunal action. Litigation always comes with risk and should be avoided as much as possible, particularly small business that may have a ‘small claim’ (under £10k). You may not get legal fees paid by the other side, even if you win!
Are there ways small business owners can avoid large legal expenses?
Large legal fees are incurred when you bring action or have to defend yourself in Court or an Employment Tribunal.
I always encourage clients to have written terms of business issued to their customers to prevent complex disputes and litigation. A significant amount of enquires we receive at Walker Thomas Solicitors are from businesses having disputes with their customers – very few of them normally have written terms in place and it creates challenges trying to establish what agreement and terms were in place between the parties.
In relation; avoiding Employment Tribunal claims being brought by your staff – always have a company handbook setting out what is expected of your staff and the policies and procedures adopted by your business should grievance or disciplinary issues arise.
Keep up to date with the ever changing employment law and ensure those responsible within your business for dealing with HR/staff issues understand your legal obligations as an employer. Often small issues escalate into larger official matters when those responsible for the handling of staff, in particular redundancy or disciplinary matters, are not knowledgeable or trained. Small business and start ups often don’t have the benefit of a HR department, so the handling of employment concerns is often handled by the business founders.
Remember that it’s not just legal fees you will have to pay if an ex employee brings action against you in an Employment Tribunal, you run the risk of damaging your brand image by your internal business affairs being made public. If in doubt, seek advice from a lawyer.
In your experience, what sort of problems do small business owners regularly face? And how are they avoided?
Co-founder disputes: if you do not have it clearly set out who does what, and what is expected from each founder/business owner from the outset, resentment and ill feeling can arise. Do not fall into the trap of thinking because you have been friends since the age of 5, or you are family, no disputes will arise. They do and they will! Such disputes keep us lawyers very busy detailing with the aftermath. Avoid this by having co-founder/executive/director/shareholder agreements in place.
Unpaid invoices/rising debt: as a small business you have staff to pay as well as lots of other overheads. It can cause many a sleepless night worrying how you are going to pay your staff when your customers don’t pay your invoices on time. Make sure you have your payment terms detailed in your Terms of Business and ensure you have procedures in place to flag up any overdue invoices. If you chase payment of your invoices and your customer still doesn’t pay, you can issue a debt claim online yourself without the need of a solicitor by issuing through ‘HMRC Money Online’. Submit the claim along with your terms of business as evidence.
‘I am a firm believer that there is a time and a place of legal jargon.’
Some people are ‘scared’ of law, as it can be so hard for Joe Public to understand. How do you help alleviate that confusion?
I am a firm believer that there is a time and a place for legal jargon. The correct time is in court or when dealing with the opposition in writing, not when you are advising a client in conference. My clients are not paying for me to show off my knowledge of complex legal terms that confuses them, they want a resolution and information that they understand. I pride myself on the ability to advise and explore options with clients using terminology that is easily understood.
When I was a trainee solicitor my training supervisor, Mark Panton Phd, commented that he was impressed at my ability to gain the respect of client ranging from Chief Executives of corporations to the ‘little man on the street’, normally charged with drug offence, who has nothing. For 12 years I have taken Marks’ comment with me in every conference I have with a client.
What are you most proud of in your life?
Watching my step son Sonny grow into an exceptionally kind, loving, funny and bright boy and knowing that I have played a little part in that over the years!
Nicola provides support to We Love Pets Franchisees and offers a free 20 minute phone call to all franchisees about legal matters.