Silkarmour Boardroom in Conversation with Janvi Patel
Rooted in hundreds of years of tradition, the legal sector isn’t too accustomed to change. Between powerhouse law firms, joining the Bar and serving as in-house legal counsel, the range of choices available to those considering a career in law has always been clearly laid out. But as Janvi Patel, Chairwoman and co-founder of Halebury saw during her time as a solicitor; even industries with years of heritage to protect them can and should find new ways to evolve.
Patel founded law-firm Halebury with colleague Denise Nurse in 2007 to pave the way for an alternative career path in the legal sector and to offer corporate clients an adaptable service that was catered to their specific needs. Patel practised law at City-based firm Charles Russell (now Charles Russell Speechlys) for several years prior to transitioning to an in-house position with Nortel Plc covering the EMEA region. It was there that Patel and Nurse saw the emerging gap between three factors; the career expectations of lawyers in-house and in private practice, the evolving demands of in-house legal teams and the delivery of the services between the two parties. Now operating with over 30 solicitors sourced from the likes of Clifford Chance and Baker & Mackenzie, working on a resourcing model that enables senior in-house lawyers to have a varied, stable client base whilst working as part of an in-house team or along side C-Suite Execs. Halebury delivers in-house legal counsel, out-of-house to the likes of Expedia, BT and Sky.
Naturally, building a business from the ground up hasn’t been easy and Patel stresses how the support system for working women fundamentally undermines the dream of ‘having it all’. Although women now have a place at the table alongside men across a number of industries, Patel argues that the caution women exercise in setting up their own businesses or pursuing leadership roles isn’t down to a lack of ambition; rather that women are more aware of the demands of the lifestyle.
Empowering women however, is a double-sided venture. Women need a platform to be empowered Patel believes; they need equal standing in education, employment and opportunity in order to be able to reach the full potential that men are always offered from the starting pistol of their careers. Secondly, men need to have an equal share in the efforts to empower women at work. The headline-smashing story of Malala Yousafzai and her father’s continued efforts to champion her activism is a prime example for Patel on how easy it is for men to contribute to the struggle; don’t hold women back, or as Yousafazi’s father pointed out, don’t “clip her wings”.
On starting her own business
The very nature of starting a business is one steep learning curve. The idea of founding your own company is rather glamourous from the outside; the reality of hard work in an independent environment however, is very different and it’s easy to take the structure, security and resources of the corporate world for granted. Being an entrepreneur isn’t a job that everyone might want to do but the personal development and education it offers is phenomenal and it’s an environment that forces you, by default, to think outside the box.
On changing the game in a tradition-led industry
The catalyst of the idea was to make a company that operated completely differently, on a model that would be far more beneficial for clients and lawyers. Going against the grain and deviating from the norm in any industry will always be tough but it’s considered radical in law because the practices are deeply rooted in tradition and have been in place for decades; there was very little room to convince people to work a different way.
My co-founder Denise Nurse and I are both former in-house lawyers. Halebury’s concept was developed from our in-house experience and as such, we have both spent the last nine years helping to educate the legal sector on what Halebury does, whilst simultaneously building the company. One challenge any entrepreneur will admit to facing is convincing others why working with a new company that offers a different model to the norm is an advantage to their business; especially in a fundamental sector like law. The model for Halebury’s business was always going to be a slow-burner but looking back, I’d now say I was naïve in thinking we’d be established in five years; ten years on, we are still developing. It’s easy to find this level of independence intimidating but the advantage is that one can model their company operations to their own ethos and personal values; completely customising the company in the process. It’s an attribute that Halebury’s clients hold great value in and the reason we grew so well over the last decade.
On her career transition
My transition from solicitor to entrepreneur was absolutely a test of my own capabilities. Having experience as an in-house lawyer was incredibly valuable as I had already taken the leap from traditional law and all their support structure to in-house where support for lawyers was limited. This helped with the transition to an entrepreneur; it wasn’t as if I had ripped myself from the corporate setting and thrown myself into the unknown but that didn’t make it any less of a challenge.
One thing I find very admirable in founders and business owners is the amount of things that land on their plate on any given day and how they go about addressing all of them. From finance, HR, office infrastructure and team management to BD/marketing and client engagement. It takes a huge amount of will, energy and motivation to get it all done. All these essential departments need your full attention and that is a testing experience when you’re running the business and trying to expand in the process.
On being a female entrepreneur
I find it particularly perplexing when female business founders are painted in a light in which they lack the courage or the conviction to take the leap. The difference between men and women isn’t a lack of conviction but that women are more aware of the long-term implications of starting a business as well as the lifestyle that is needed to sustain it. When looking at the data for female founders, they are often in their thirties and forties; a time when they have their career off the ground and financial capacity behind them, rather than jumping off the cliff in a blind leap of faith.
The potential issue of children is what also divides men and women in entrepreneurship. Maternity pay doesn’t exist in start-up companies, which is a completely different experience from working in the City on a good salary level. The day I left my in-house position was the day we started Halebury and I became pregnant the following year. Although I didn’t earn enough for maternity pay, I had earned enough during the previous decade and had savings as part of my plan to start a business but for other women, it’s a risk they can’t afford to take.
On the struggle for working women
Our systems are not set up for working women, nor do they support female entrepreneurs as they were established in a time where the workforce was predominantly male. A recent statistic that emerged shows that apparently only 15% of women aspire to go into leadership roles, which just isn’t true. I’ve met a huge amount of women who would be great for leadership roles but don’t want them because of the reality of the lifestyle. They’ve told me; “I don’t want to never see my children, having to leave the house at 7am and work until 10pm and have a heart attack by the time I’m 50.” It’s unfortunate but it also shows how perceptive women are in seeing a situation for what it really is and how it will affect them in the long term.
On the need for corporate flexibility
Flexibility is a grossly undervalued asset in corporate environments. I was adamant that we integrate it into our business, as it does wonders for moral and motivation. For example, a number of our teams will work flat out on major transactions and projects for weeks at a time and then have downtime, away from the office to recover. A lot of the work involves long hours, multiple time zones and huge amounts of responsibility. Providing them with flexible working hours is an investment in their well-being. Although these teams have been working at a senior level upwards of twenty years, to do so consistently without seeing your family or having time for yourself isn’t healthy, nor is it productive and I hope to see more companies embracing this in the future.
On the stigma of overachieving
Something my children are very aware of is the pressure to get perfect grades. It’s common for them to get upset if they don’t get straight A’s and I’m focused on highlighting how good grades are not an end-and-all answer to success. It’s a difficult thing to explain to a child who is sheltered by the education system but it’s important to instill that belief in them; that they can be successful by a variety of definitions. I feel my job as a mother is to help them define what they enjoy and to support it; whether that’s academia, music, dance or business – as long as they have a passion to follow.
I didn’t have a formal mentor in founding my business but I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by people who are business leaders in their own right. I grew up around fantastic examples of entrepreneurship, such as my parents and family friends, Kirit and Meena Pathak, who founded and eventually sold Patak’s Food. I feel I was born in a family that specialized in starting up businesses and it was always a hot topic growing up; the sales and finances alongside the creative element and the evolving dynamics of the responsibilities.
On empowering women
Women need a platform to begin with in order to be empowered. Having opportunities and the means to take them is one of the fundamental resources women need to succeed but education is also incredibly valuable. I think about my daughter and her future compared to her brothers and how, if left unmonitored, she could be restricted in her opportunities. Giving a child an education is the single most valuable gift you can give them, but ensuring they have opportunities to pursue after they develop their skills is an essential part of that.
On the correlation between success and likeability
I really hope that there’s isn’t a correlation between being unpleasant and being successful. One element I really stood my ground on when developing Halebury was that our founding team were good people doing a good thing. We don’t get up at 4am just to earn an income but because we love and care about what we do; we want to offer our clients and our team the best possible service and support. If that belief, alongside our profits and range of clients, doesn’t make us a success, then there is a huge issue in our thinking of what constitutes being successful.
Maintaining a commitment to have diverse teams would address this and I always try to hire into my skill-set deficit. Investing time and money in someone who you think can do a great job and communicating that with them is hugely empowering as the employer is providing a platform for the employee to flourish and in that, the employee becomes loyal to you. Nothing comes to fruition from surrounding yourself with ‘yes people’ and it’s the stigma of disagreement with someone or offering up a different way of thinking that kindles this idea of being an ‘unlikeable’ person which again, is fundamentally untrue. I apply this theory to all aspects of my life as it really is the only way you can grow. Surrounding myself with people who question me and who push me forward is how I evaluate my progress and learn in the process. If you’re honest about your desire to learn from others, there will be less room for people to think badly of you.
I have an obsession for binge-watching TV shows. My favourite TV show of all time is West Wing, I have started watching Narcos but for now I’m watching reruns of Scandal.
I don’t enjoy reading fiction very much; I always prefer to read books by people whose journey and business can inspire me such as Zainab Salbi’s “Between Two Worlds, Escape from Tyranny: Growing up in the Shadow of Saddam”. Zainab Salib is the founder for Women for Women International; a charity that supports female war victims. Currently I’m reading “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz, a very real look at running a business.
The best advice I have ever received is to just be happy and always motivate yourself to strive to the next goal. I’m happy in the moment but I’m still reaching out to something else. Find joy in your accomplishments and appreciate that the grind of working continuously is in pursuit of something you love.
Concerning clothes, my seven-year-old son is the one who is in charge. One of the unforgettable moments was when we were shopping and he found a pair of bright yellow strappy heels that he picked out and insisted they would be perfect for me, he was five at the time. They are strangely comfortable for such a high heel and I love wearing them. Right now, I love wearing bold pieces and they are what I opt for now during important meetings and events.
Follow Janvi on Twitter on @janvi25
This article first appeared in Silkarmour in August 2016.
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