‘I’m a human being first – and a lawyer second’

08th Aug

It’s a Friday afternoon, and I’ve finally managed to get hold of Nick Miller after a couple of weeks of passing like ships in the night as work schedules kept getting the better of us. When I finally get through to him, I’m expecting to have to keep my interview brief so he can get back on with his day; if I’m honest, I’m expecting that he’ll sound like he has better things to do than talk to me.
I couldn’t be more wrong. Nick tells me I can keep him as long as I like, as it’ll be a “welcome distraction from work”. It’s also clear that I’ve phoned in the middle of a debate about which costume he’s going to wear for the forthcoming National Fruit and Veg Day. “I’m going to be the banana,” he says. Er, ok. Really? “Yes, we’re going to have a team photo dressed as fruit and veg. We deal with important things on Friday afternoons, as you can tell.”
I can already see that James Legal lives up to its tagline of “a fresh approach”. Ten years ago, Nick set up the company with the aim of overturning perceptions about lawyers – that they are greedy, extortionate and inaccessible to ordinary people. By 2009, he’d enjoyed a long career in law, working his way up the ranks of various firms – but the profession was certainly not something he’d set his sights on as a youngster.
“At school, I always wanted to be an architect or a deep-sea diver. Because the two are very similar, aren’t they?!” Nick laughs. He admits he didn’t perhaps take school as seriously as he should have done, but then boys will be boys – he wasn’t a particularly bad kid, he just liked having a bit of a laugh with his mates. “I had no aspirations whatsoever to be a lawyer. I didn’t believe I was clever enough, because I anticipated that you had to be extraordinarily clever. I later found out that’s not the case…”
I sense a streak of self-deprecation in Nick, here, but this, again, filters down into his company. I have no doubt at all that Nick and his team are pretty clever people, but they don’t present themselves as highfalutin’ legal whiz kids. They are normal, approachable, there for you when you need them.
After leaving school, Nick worked as a graphic designer and a DJ, as well as in a paint factory and a company making false teeth, until he decided to pursue science qualifications at college. None of which, he acknowledges, naturally leads to being a lawyer. So, what was the catalyst?
Nick’s head was turned, ironically, by the perception of the legal profession he now works so hard to knock down – the lure of big money. He had been walking past the jobcentre when he saw an advert for the position of a legal executive at another local firm. “That sounds a bit posh – I wonder if I could do that?” Nick had thought. This then triggered another memory of when he had needed to visit a solicitor and had been charged £5 just to sign his name. “I thought at the time, Christ, £5? Just to put your name down? That’s great! The two things just came together – the ad in the jobcentre and remembering the £5 charge just to sign your name – so I applied for the job and managed to get it, and I didn’t complete my science exams.”
He worked at the firm for a few years, until he was, again, lured away to another firm by the promise of a higher wage. It was here he learned a fundamental life lesson – money doesn’t always buy you happiness. Although he was getting paid more, he wasn’t enjoying the job much. “Fortunately the firm I’d left took me back, which was very kind of them,” says Nick. “It was a learning experience.”
A move to another Hull legal firm followed, and Nick began studying part-time for a law degree. But he soon realised that the so-called letter of the law didn’t bear much resemblance to law in practice – “what you’re doing, when push comes to shove, is helping people,” he says. And that was his main motivation. “I get a great deal of personal satisfaction from helping people. People come to solicitors and legal firms generally because they’ve got a problem – it can be a stressful time for them, so there’s a great deal of personal reward in helping people.”
During his career, Nick had worked on most areas of law, including criminal (“I’ve done a few murders,” he says, before quickly pointing out that he’d meant murder cases, and had not committed any murders – a clarification I’m more than happy to make…), but ended up focusing on business law. “That’s where I get my greatest buzz, because I’ve had experience with lots of businesses in my time, so I’m able to use that for the benefit of my clients who happen to be businesses.”
Nick set up James Legal with the intention of being a solely B2B legal firm, but found that people were approaching him with a range of other issues. Initially he farmed those clients out to other legal firms, but they weren’t providing the levels of service he was entirely happy with, so he set about developing the personal law side of the business. That, and the company’s mission to be “business lawyers for business people” provide the “bread and butter” for James Legal (it doesn’t deal with criminal law or what some might call the more ambulance-chasing accident cases). As a relatively new firm set up by an entrepreneur, James Legal is well-placed to help those on a similar journey, Nick says. “We can relate to them – and we like to walk that walk with them.”
People thought Nick was a bit “daft” setting up his own firm during the fallout from the recession a decade ago, but what drove him was his desire to overturn the general perception that lawyers are “bloody expensive, don’t communicate with you when you want them to, difficult to get hold of and talk jargon”. Like his team, Nick is a “person first, lawyer second – I’m a human being who just so happens to be a lawyer.”
To be able to get up and running meant one thing – sacrifice. It’s a word you’ll read elsewhere in this magazine and in practically every story of entrepreneurs who don’t have the luxury of starting out with millions in the bank (and not many do). Nick credits his mother with instilling in him financial values he still lives by today – “it’s not about borrowing, it’s only spending what you’ve got, and if you haven’t got it, you wait until you’ve got it”. As he was growing his business, he had two options. He could pay himself, or he could invest in his team, premises, equipment, etc. He did the latter, and for the first four or five years he didn’t take a “penny piece” out of the business, living as frugally as he could. Fortunately, he’s not a particularly high-maintenance bloke – he doesn’t drink or have expensive hobbies; his business is his hobby, he says.
This being the case, it’s not unheard of for Nick to answer the phone to a client at 2am. This sounds like a worryingly out-of-kilter work-life balance to me, but Nick assures me it’s more about flexibility, not working yourself into the ground, and this ethos runs through the heart of his company. I mention to him that I have in the past worked for productivity-obsessed managers who’ve monitored my every move, even my toilet breaks – and this sort of clock-watching couldn’t be further from the environment at James Legal. His team fit their hours around their lives and families, with some coming in early and leaving early, and others preferring to work later.
“It’s a bit of give and take,” Nick says, “and I trust them to do a very good job for the clients, which they do. I trust them to organise their own work-life balance, and I give them the latitude to be able to do that. I would hate to think that, come the weekend, somebody is immersed in answering emails rather than spending time with their children. You’ve got to have your ‘you time’.” I heartily agree. It’s not rocket science – quite simply, James Legal treats its staff like “adults”, Nick says, which is why it has good staff retention.
A couple of years ago, Nick launched his Inspiring Business series of seminars, in which he shared his own journey and provided a platform for other entrepreneurs to tell their stories to a wider audience. Nick deliberately sought to avoid people from the big-hitters that everyone’s heard of, such as Smith & Nephew and Reckitts, instead approaching people from SMEs, which are the backbone of Hull and, indeed, the country. The events are now in their third year, and feature a wide range of people with, as it says on the tin, inspiring tales to tell. They may not necessarily be experienced public speakers, and that, in a way, is the point, says Nick. These are ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and many of them might not have had the confidence to speak to a room full of their peers – but by the end of the event, they’ve gained a new skill and the audience has learned something. It’s a win-win.
Talking of winning – the Inspiring Business competition has already given £70,000 to support to three stand-out local firms in 2017 and 2018, and the 2019 competition will see another “creative and driven” company secure £20,000 of support for their business. Details of how to enter are on the James Legal website, with the closing date of December 31. Whether you’re a sole trader, or employ a handful of people or a large team – if you, like Nick, have an inspiring story to tell, why not get your entry in? You’ve got nothing to lose, and rather a lot to gain.

BusinessWorks Hull & East Yorkshire Autumn 2021

Features from the latest print magazine, Autumn 2021

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  • The amazing story of veteran-turned-entrepreneur Jon Hilton
  • What’s happening in Hull? – Dave Bushnell lets us know
  • How Good2Learn is lightening the load of teachers – and parents