Helen Johnson is the managing partner of Emery Johnson Astills along with four other partners. She founded Emery Johnson in 1995 in Leicester, and now has offices in Loughborough and Coalville as well.

Helen is a criminal solicitor and Solicitor Advocate which means she can represent clients in all courts. There’s no need to find a barrister when Helen’s around! Client care is central to her success, and the firm’s aim is make clients feel supported and not burdened by their legal experience. That must be why the awards are stacking up – Claire is the current Law Society Solicitor Advocate of the Year and she’s been shortlisted for our SME Business of the Year – Growth Award (The Midlands).

Forward Ladies: How did you come up with the idea for your business?

HJ: During my training and after I qualified I worked in a few high street firms that provided a general service to clients. I recognized that we were moving towards a time where clients would want a niche firm that specialised in a few areas of law. In 1995 most firms were generalist, so I jumped at the chance to offer something more unique. Since then many other firms have followed us and cover only a one or a few areas of law.

Forward Ladies: What were some of the initial challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

HJ: Being a young female (29) working in a male dominated world, at a time when most firms of solicitors had one or no female partners was challenging. Some of my competitors didn’t take us seriously. We were two women running a firm of solicitors. I’d hear comments like “what do these silly girls think they’re doing”.

A partner at a firm nearby said it was good that we’d set up down the road as it would be convenient when he took us over. Less than ten years later we moved into those same offices when we outgrew our space.

The growth and success of the firm was due to hard work, determination and simple grit. Now 21 years later I don’t have any issues with being taken seriously.

Forward Ladies: How did you fund your business?

HJ: I had no savings to put into the business and Lesley Emery my business partner at the time (she retired from the business at 49 in 2007) was recently divorced so had no money either.

We drafted a business plan and got a loan from our bank for £7,000. I also obtained a 9 year interest free loan of £9,000 from Sir Thomas White – a Leicester based charity available to people under 30 setting up a business – which we paid back within 5 years.

Forward Ladies: What is your top tip for growing your business?

HJ: My top tip is to manage the business pro-actively and to take strategy seriously. I’ve always considered the management of the business to be as important as the legal work.

Back in 1995 few firms had an office manager or spent time actively managing their business. Now most recognize you can’t solely focus on advising clients and let your business run itself. I had no management experience or knowledge, but I read, went on day courses and made contacts with people who could help.

Decisions must to be based on the needs of the business, not just at that moment but in the medium and long term. We made a strategic decision to grow our business in a new direction 3 years ago when we merged with a firm doing areas of law we didn’t offer. We took on 2 partners, a solicitor and 4 support staff and mixed in our own staff so they could learn about these new areas. This merger was considered unusual because we didn’t do the same areas of law but it’s good to think outside the box.

Forward Ladies: Why would you recommend that people build their network and find the support they need to start and grow their business?

HJ: Managing a business can be lonely. It’s important to rely on people within your business to come up with fresh, new ideas but sometimes you need an external viewpoint.

I’ve relied upon other professionals numerous times to discuss ideas and proposals. This can provide a useful check to over enthusiastic plans or plans that need further work. Having a network also opens you up to other opportunities. Our merger happened after I came to know the partners of the other firm through professional networking.

Forward Ladies: How do you maintain a work/life balance?

HJ: When my firm was set up I was 29 and a single parent of a 3 year old son. In order to succeed I needed to work long hours and this included going to the police station in the middle of the night and at weekends. I subsequently met my husband and had 2 more children. When my second child was 18 months old, I found that working in the office 9-5 plus going to police stations a couple of nights a week (and at the weekend) too much.

I changed my hours to work flexibly. I still did the out of hours work but I left the office at 3pm to pick my son up from school and my daughter up from nursery. Now this sort of flexible working arrangement is commonplace, but in 1999 it certainly wasn’t!

Now my children are 14, 18 and 24 their needs are different, in some ways it’s easier but there’s still challenges. One thing I do know is that holidays are important.

Forward Ladies: How has mentorship made a difference in your business?

HJ: I’ve never had a formal mentor but I‘ve had a lot of people encourage and support me along the way. I have a friend, who is now a Judge, who was always there for me in a legal crisis or to reassure me when things didn’t go to plan.

In the early days of the business I attended courses with a management expert and he came to the office to advise us. He was always available to speak to me and settle my mind, like when my original business partner told me she was leaving which was totally unexpected. We still meet regularly to share experiences and expertise, it’s a great resource.

My accountant speaks to me frankly about the business and supports me when I need him. It’s definitely important to have people outside the business who know something about it and who you can speak to in confidence.

Forward Ladies: Thank you for your time Helen, you’ve been great!

Would you like your business and hard work to be recognised, just like Helen’s has been? Then apply for one of our prestigious National Women in Business awards, so we can celebrate your success and inspire other women to do the same. There’s nothing we love more than promoting incredible women in business!