Young, new and innovative: How two lawyers created their law firm after articling

  • October 10, 2014
  • Julie Sobowale

When Sarah Shiels saw an opportunity in 2013 to reach a new audience, she contacted the Dalhousie Student Union at Dalhousie University to speak about the basics of tenant rights for students. The school posted a story about her talk. In 2014, a CBC reporter stumbled on the Dalhousie story and interviewed Shiels for a CBC story on tenant rights.

“It’s not a special kind of knowledge but I put myself out there,” says Shiels, a partner at CS Legal. “In trying to start a business, if you’re more interested in intellectual property or family law, connect with the community and become the expert. It’s our strategy as a firm. We’re looking for market opportunities.”

And you never know how far word of mouth will spread.

From the beginning, CS Legal has been different from other firms. The two partners, Natalie Clifford and Sarah Shiels, were newly called to the bar when they started their law firm. With little overhead and lots of ideas, CS Legal is an example of implementing innovative ideas by staying small and nimble.

“It’s been important to us to find unique ways to self-promote,” says Clifford. “I come from a business/PR background, and love finding alternative ways to advertise. We focus on making contacts through networking, publishing articles and blog posts, cultivating our internet presence, and giving practical presentations for special interest groups, among other things. We’ve tried to build our practice from a fresh perspective, not letting ourselves get caught up in ‘how it should be’ or ‘always has been’ done.”

Clifford and Shiels met while studying at Dalhousie Schulich School of Law, where they graduated in 2012. In fall 2013, after articling for Wickwire Holm, a mid-size law firm in Halifax, they decided to open their own mobile law practice, one that would seek opportunities beyond the usual areas of real estate and commercial transactions. Shiels specializes in marine law, Clifford specializes in aboriginal law, and both have an interest in environmental law. Shiels received her marine law certificate from the Schulich School of Law and co-chaired the Environmental Law Students’ Society.  Clifford is an active member of the aboriginal community in Nova Scotia.

“We see the focuses of marine, environmental and aboriginal law as opening doors for us to work with specialized groups which are in need of legal work,” says Clifford. “There’s a certain amount of work to be done in all of these areas in securing a successful and healthy future for Canada, and we’d like to be a part of that.”

Clifford and Shiels took an entrepreneurial approach to their business. They went to the Centre of Entrepreneurial Education and Development (CEED) for funding, professional development and help creating their business plan.

“They gave me peace of mind and helped us with significant details in our business plan like when to hire support staff,” says Shiels. “There are a number of practical aspects to running a business that you can’t learn without being in the thick of it. CEED walked us through those practical steps and made sure we were ready to take on the business world.”

Both women decided early on to enter into a partnership. Part of the advantage of starting a partnership is shared responsibilities including the workload, risk and added support.

“Our shared principles are honesty and transparency, in our relationships with clients and between us,” says Clifford. “A strength of our firm is that its two partners think so differently from each other. For example, Sarah naturally thinks about expansion and hiring and I think more about promotion – together we make a balanced act. We’re always pushing and pulling each other and definitely keep each other motivated.”

Launching as a mobile law firm with a website and LinkedIn profiles as points of contact for clients gives the pair flexibility. “When you’re working from home, make sure it’s a secure space, especially with family,” says Shiels. “I have a home office with files in different places but at the end of the day I can close that room.”

Flexibility also runs through their pricing and billing systems. CS Legal offers flexible fee arrangements for many legal services including incorporations, wills, real estate transactions and components of litigation files – and a flexible arrangement for the partners themselves, which frees both women up to pursue other interests.

“We don’t have billable targets,” says Shiels. “We decided to start our firm because we have lots of other interests. We didn’t want to work for other firms where our charitable time would be limited by non-billable hours. We know the bottom line and what we need to do.”

Clifford currently serves as the Vice-Chair for The Friends of Gilda’s Nova Scotia, a cancer support community, while Shiels keeps busy travelling to various conferences.

After their first full year of practice, Clifford and Shiels are interested in creating new ideas and experiences. Shiels is currently co-writing a chapter in a marine law textbook with Prof. Aldo Chircop, a leading expert in the field. They’re also looking at the idea of setting up a physical office.

“With my background in PR, I see a lot of opportunities to offer legal clients PR advice – an aspect of, for example, crisis and litigation management, which is very often overlooked,” says Clifford. “As we continue to organically grow our law firm, I am always finding ways to maintain a presence in the PR world, and forging a niche offering a duo of PR and legal advice for our clients.”

Julie Sobowale is @juliebusy on Twitter, where she describes herself as a “writer, researcher, editor, ALIS board member, with time to spare.” She is based in Halifax.