Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: Mira Stammers from Legally Yours On Why Old Ways Will Never Open New Doors
In the September Issue of BucketOrange Magazine, we catch up with Mira Stammers, founder & CEO of Melbourne-based legal startup, Legally Yours – a legal marketplace that connects clients with fixed-fee lawyers. With a string of accolades to her name, including nominations for prestigious industry awards such as the Lawyers Weekly Women In Law Awards (Thought Leader of the Year), Telstra Australian Business Women’s Awards, as well as recent recognition among the top 8 women in Australian legal tech, we find out just what it takes to make a legal trailblazer.
Can you tell us a bit about your career trajectory and what made you decide to pursue law?
“In high school I always had an interest in psychology and legal studies, so I applied to La Trobe University to study Behavioural Science. I completed my degree in Behavioural Science and a Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Psychology. I had a research supervisor who was a psychologist and a lawyer and the combination of specialities interested me, particularly in relation to forensic psychology and criminal law.
At the same time I was accepted into a Doctorate of Psychology I was also accepted into law, and made the decision to study law to see if I enjoyed it more than psychology. It turns out that I loved the study of law and felt my psychology background would give me a unique edge when it came to working with clients.
It’s funny about your goals when you start studying law. I always thought I’d end up a criminal barrister, or perhaps a family lawyer. Turns out I loved corporate law and ended up specialising in banking law after completing a rotation in my articles year and enjoying it thoroughly.
That experience put me in good stead for an international move and, shortly after qualifying, I moved to London where I worked as a banking lawyer for almost five years at an international firm. The firm was quite progressive and post GFC had to be savvy in terms of maintaining their client base. We provided fixed fee quotes on all matters, even those where the assets being acquired ran into several hundred million pounds. On returning to Melbourne I noticed that firms were not offering fixed fees, and so clients were not receiving any form of price certainty.
Things seemed a little outdated, so I went about trying to change that.
In your early days working as a lawyer have you faced any challenges that you may not have anticipated in a traditionally male-dominated industry? How did you deal with it?
“I certainly found that I had to stand my ground and act with confidence. Banking law is more male dominated than many other areas of law, so it was important to hold my own, give as good as I got, and believe in myself.
I refused to allow people to speak over the top of me.
I made sure I worked hard and became skilled at not only the legal work, but also the marketing aspect of the job. Early on I made the mistake of trying to ‘act like a man’ in order to gain respect. I read a book called ‘Nice Girls Don’t get the Corner Office’ and thought that if I rid myself of my feminine ways I would gain more respect. What I found was that while it worked in the short term, I wasn’t being authentic with work colleagues or my clients. As I became more confident in my abilities I realised my femininity was actually a huge strength which allowed me to build strong working relationships with colleagues and clients.”
Most lawyers tend to be naturally risk averse, so what was the catalyst that inspired you to take a leap of faith and branch out on your own by founding Legally Yours?
“I’m not really like most lawyers (at least that’s what people tell me!).
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Banking law is very transactional and business focused so I was used to high pressure decision-making. I loved the legal work but I was more interested in the business and marketing aspects of my job, so founding a company felt like a natural progression.
When you’re building a new business model, particularly in a conservative industry that has been slow to embrace change, there can be a tendency for some “scepticism of the new” to creep in. What are your experiences with this, and have you found that you have had to work hard to establish your credibility and reputation?
I think the scepticism is a reflection of the greed thats rife throughout the profession.
“I have found that many lawyers are not open to change if (a) they don’t know how to change, and (b) it may risk not making as much money.
There is certainty in hourly rates. It certainly works for lawyers, but it doesn’t work for clients … and shouldn’t clients be the focus? I feel there is an eternal conflict with hourly rates. The longer it takes a lawyer to complete a task, the more money they make. It doesn’t promote efficiency or value based outcomes.
I don’t feel that I have had to work extra hard to build credibility and my reputation, but I have felt that many lawyers have been scared of what these changes to legal business models may mean for them. Other lawyers are more progressive and client focused – and they embrace the change. Those are the lawyers we want to work with.”
What do you think is the biggest challenge currently facing women in law?
“I think the biggest challenge has always been the inflexible nature of working in private practice. This is reflected in the higher number of female graduates yet extremely small number of female partners. It’s a problem that has existed for too long, and it’s incredibly frustrating.
I’ve found that there are few firms that embrace flexible work practices which, in my view, is short-sighted. The women that we have on our panel who work flexibly – whether for family or other reasons – are not only hugely talented but are also amazingly efficient with their time. In particular, I think working mums are an under-utilised and under-valued talent pool.”
Many young lawyers are becoming frustrated with the strictures of traditional legal work and the slowness of some firms to uptake technology or embrace new ideas. It has been predicted by legal commentators, such as Dr George Beaton, that in the coming years many young lawyers will leave firms and launch their own legal startups. Have you found this to be the case? What is one piece of advice you would give a young lawyer who is looking to break the mould, as you have, and forge an alternative career pathway in the law?
“The majority of people on our panel are lawyers who have felt this frustration and have branched out on their own. I would strongly encourage it once you have gained some experience and feel ready for the change.
Running your own practice, whether a law firm or a legal startup of some sort, comes with its own challenges of course. It’s important to understand what those challenges are so you can prepare for them effectively.
If you want to excel, you’ll need skills not only in law but also in business and marketing.
If you’re looking to launch a startup, it’s wise to get across the current ‘lean startup’ methodologies as it will save you a lot of time and money. There is also a great course called the Startup Leadership Program (I completed this in 2014) which helps you understand the challenges you will face when running a startup.”
What has been your biggest challenge or achievement to date?
“Challenges probably include brand awareness and understanding how to measure the effectiveness of different sales channels.
Unless you have a large marketing budget, or are very good at PR, it can be hard to get your name out there and get known for what you do. Achievements are many, small and big.
Personally I feel a great sense of achievement when we work with a lawyer relatively new to private practice and are able to help him/her build a practice on their own terms. Being a Finalist in the Women in Law Awards (Thought Leader category) was also a pretty special moment.”
Do you maintain an effective work/life balance? If so, tell us how you do it!
“I’m not a fan of the question around work/life balance because I feel it’s a question that only women get asked. What I will say is that when you launch your own business there is no work/life balance, you have to put in the long hours and the hard work if you want to establish a strong client base.
The business model you choose is also important in terms of the lifestyle you want to achieve, so put some thought into how you want to structure your business.
Consider whether you want to work virtually, whether you want to offer hours outside traditional business hours, who your ideal client is etc. The model I’ve set up has allowed me to have quite a lot of freedom and flexibility. I became pregnant two years post-launch and have been able to have maternity leave and still run a business which has been great.”
Where do you see yourself, and your business, in 5 years time?
“I think startups often pivot, so five years out can be hard to determine. At the moment we are looking at what our next move is as we are in a growth phase. We have a couple of options, but whichever one we take it will be with the view to make fixed fee legal work more accessible throughout Australia.”
What is your favourite law hack or life hack at the moment?
“Become centred before making any big work or career-related decisions. When things are unclear or confusing, I meditate. The answer comes when my mind is quiet.”
To meet Mira, and hear more about her mission to disrupt the legal industry by making legal services more accessible, transparent and affordable for all Australians, you can catch her speaking at the Nillumbik Business Network’s “Candid fireside conversation” event on 14 September at 7pm. To attend the event, register here.
BucketOrange Magazine / September 2016