Think you’ve got what it takes to start your own law firm? Just three years after being admitted to the bar, Ugur Nedim ventured out on his own. Here’s his lessons learned from 18 years building a business that’s become Sydney’s most awarded criminal law firm.
When Sydney Criminal Lawyers (SCL) opened its doors in 2001, Ugur Nedim was in his mid-20s. He was energetic, passionate and purposeful, with a clear vision founded on a strong sense of social justice.
He wanted to create a law firm which not only delivered exceptional results for clients, but one which aimed to make legal matters much less intimidating for those who find themselves navigating the justice system.
“The system is wrapped in procedure and ‘legalese’. It’s complex. It can be frightening … unknown. And, it’s a lawyer’s job to advocate for clients, I wanted to deliver that, at every step, using simple language, helping people to understand how justice works, in order to give clients a sense of power in a system that can, at times, feel inaccessible and unmanageable,” he explains.
Of course, vision, purpose and passion are the hallmarks of most entrepreneurs. But being able to balance the ‘dream’ along with nitty gritty realities of getting a small business off the ground – and most importantly, keeping it solvent – is what makes the difference between a firm that survives and one that doesn’t.
Now, 18 years on, Ugur Nedim is still at the helm, very much involved in all aspects of general day-to-day running, as well as representing clients. The firm now employs 20 staff, as well as various freelancers, and has offices in the Sydney CBD, Liverpool, Paramatta, Chatswood, Penrith, Newcastle, Wollongong and Bankstown. Recently it expanded its Sydney office and refurbished the Paramatta premises. This year, the firm also launched a law scholarship.
Over time, Ugur has also built a well-known brand and become Sydney’s most awarded criminal law firm. So, what are the lessons he learned along the way?
For Ugur, the key has been to remain completely focused on the original vision, and ask himself, ‘What’s best for the clients?’ at every pivotal juncture. This philosophy has underpinned decisions such as the location of offices as well as the implementation of a hotline that provides access to members of his team 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.
While the hotline in particular, might seem like a small detail, it’s a significant one in terms of the overall service delivery that Ugur aspires too. After all, law doesn’t always fit into a neat 9am-5pm 5-day working week.
It is this client-focused philosophy that also originally led Ugur to building a strong web presence. He could see the usefulness of a website as a tool which he could turn into a comprehensive and publicly available, free resource of information.
“Traditionally, law has been sort of cloaked in secrecy, and I could see real value in building a strong library, with articles and show videos presented in a way that would help people to understand their rights,” he says.
So, when many law firms didn’t even have websites, Sydney Criminal Lawyers was already publishing regular material online. In many ways the website content has become a hallmark of the firm. In the past decade especially, as digital marketing has become more sophisticated, SCL’s website and social media presence has become a powerful component of its business development strategy.
Since 2007 the firm has been producing, and publishing fresh, engaging, original content. Recently the firm’s blog made the list of the top 75 criminal law blogs globally and, was the only Australian blog to make the list. This content, along with an investment in, and a commitment to, a long-term SEO strategy has helped to strengthen the firm’s brand, and deliver business leads via it’s digital presence. Over a period of seven years, web traffic increased 7,000 per cent and the conversation rate increased by 700 per cent.
“Having good content and a well-thought out SEO strategy that’s consistently adhered too, quite simply, results in high Google rankings,” says Ugur. “And while this gives us cost-effective reach, it also helps people find us easily. And, the money we save on marketing, means that for many cases we can offer a fixed-fee service, so clients know what a matter will cost, up front.”
This is another small but significant detail. If you find yourself in a position where you need a lawyer, undoubtedly, you’re stressed. Being able to find a reputable, experienced firm with a simple internet search is another part of SCL’s commitment to being accessible and transparent.
But even so, the website is not the firm’s only source of business development. While some clients come via the internet, many come as referrals, from previous satisfied clients.
“Many small business owners, particularly in the early years, focus on the business. And while that’s important, we’ve always maintained a commitment to clients first and foremost,” says Ugur.
“We’ve never let other business matters distract us from delivering exceptional client service. It’s our ethos. Not just because it brings money in the door, but because, fundamentally, it is our reason for being – to get the best possible results, every time. And we don’t let anything get in the way of that,” he says.
A lot of professional services firms spout the rhetoric. But Ugur’s firm has a track record of meeting all of the benchmarks which measure the effectiveness of client service delivery – repeat business, referrals, positive testimonials, a published track record of favourable outcomes for clients, as well as a litany of awards.
“Certainly, winning awards gives existing and potential clients increased confidence in who we are and what we do,” says Ugur. “But more than that, awards keep us, as a firm, inspired, continuously striving, aiming to be the best we can be, they keep us committed to continual improvement.”
So, having notched up two decades of success in business, what advice would Ugur give to others starting their own law firm?
The importance of the team
“I have written extensively about starting your own firm, but there are probably three or four key pieces of advice,” says Ugur. “Number one, as we have grown, is to surround myself with good people. I started on my own, working out of a small unit in Chatswood. What I’ve learned is that no single business owner can do everything by themselves and at some point, the business grows and you eventually need to start building a team,” he explains.
One of the strengths of the SCL team is diversity, across age, gender, ethnicity, and culture as well as specialist legal experience.
“Honestly, this better reflects the diversity of our client base and makes us a lot more ‘relatable’, particularly if there are cultural nuances we need to consider on behalf of a client, or if English is a second language. Australia is a multicultural nation, and our firm is a reflection of that.”
Technology and infrastructure
“Secondly, my advice would be to invest in good systems, for accounting and general administration processes. Templates for letterheads, fax cover sheets, records of appearance, timesheets, cost agreements, authorities, character reference guides are a must for any law firm from day one. I am always happy to provide mine as a guide to budding firms. It is also imperative that you have proper systems in place when it comes to making file notes, managing cost agreements, sending letters out to clients, the DPP and police, invoicing and so on. Again, I am happy to share mine with budding firms.
“And to have a system for practice precedents. Practice precedents for different case types can be built up by a firm over several years – for example, my precedents for ‘representations’ (ie detailed letters to police and DPP to get charges withdrawn) comprise hundreds of sets of representations for dozens of case types. We also have precedent packs for a range of offence categories with a wealth of information built up over more than a decade. But for firms who haven’t built these up yet, and who don’t want to spend thousands on a subscription to LexisNexis or other research databases – a copy of the current ‘Annotated Criminal Legislation NSW’ and a subscription to the Judicial Information Research System (‘JIRS’) is a cost-effective way of starting out.”
“Always make sure you get paid. In the early days, I accepted many cases without upfront payment – and ended up being burnt many times, even after securing outstanding outcomes for my clients. By all means give free advice, help community legal centres for free, or undertake other pro bono work, but it is wise to ensure that funds are in your trust account before you embark on paid work, so you can pay your bills. In my experience this also goes a long way to fostering good client relations and reduces frustrations.
“And, last but not least, let your people shine. You employ them for a reason.”
Ugur, like most lawyers, has an exceptionally keen eye for detail, and is a perfectionist. But while these traits make him a good lawyer, they don’t influence his people management style. His team says he genuinely lets go of the reigns to enable them do their jobs, and build their own professional reputations, without micro-management.
“There are so many talented young graduates and lawyers, and it’s important they are mentored and guided. I’m always looking for people who’ve got great grades, or good experience. But more than that, I’m looking for people who are willing to put in 100 percent, show initiative, and go the extra mile. There are many skills you can teach – this is not one of them. If someone has the right aptitude and attitude, then we’re interested in that.”
“Sometimes you need to draw on all the resources you’ve got to deliver for a client in a particularly difficult case. So, in order to do that we decided not to apportion individual budgets and targets. In my opinion, these can create a sense of competition amongst team mates, and we want to ensure that our team collaborates, at all times,” he says. “We aim to build a culture on open communication and information sharing.”
Collaboration and Cooperation
“I believe in sharing information, whether through freely available blogs and detailed website pages … internally, working together on cases, or assisting other professionals. By co-operating we can help and learn from each other, and that makes us all better lawyers,” he says.
In keeping with this philosophy, Ugur created the Sydney Criminal Lawyers Help Fund several years ago. It is an employee-driven charitable initiative. It has raised enough money to build a school in Bangladesh, something that Ugur is especially proud of.
“The SCL Help Fund, is, very simply, about giving back,” he says.
“Criminal law is not for the faint-hearted. This is a profession in which you are regularly confronted with the inequities in society as well as the impact of anti-social and criminal behaviour on people, families and communities. We’re lucky. We’re very fortunate. We’ve had the opportunity to study, to achieve gainful employment in meaningful careers. In my view, it’s important to give back and to make a difference when we can.”