Cilliers Attorneys is celebrating their 3rd Anniversary this week! So we decided to interview the founding partner Jodene Cilliers. She was very vulnerable in this interview as she gave us insight into the firm with a behind-the-scenes look of what it took to get to three years. Please note: this was a very relaxed interview and so we have quoted her directly.
Tell us how Cilliers Attorneys started?
“You know, when I look back, I still cannot believe this firm came into being. I had just given birth to my daughter and was on maternity leave at the time, with all intention of returning to the law firm I was employed at. However, something I had been grappling with, was that I had always known that once I became a mother, I did not want to work the expected 12-14 hours a day, that I had previously done, for almost 7 years (and overtime pay did not exist by the way). Having a child makes you realise how pointless working like a slave is and that there is far more to life. Flexibility and having a quality of life was missing in my life. It is funny how God works, because becoming a mother, ultimately led to a domino effect of me having to find an alternative work culture and that alternative work culture ended up with another birth, the birth of Cilliers Attorneys.”
What gave you the courage to take this giant leap and open a brand new law firm, instead of finding an alternative place of employ that could offer the flexibility you were looking for?
“I did hand my CV out to other firms and corporates with an amazing reference in tow. So I did not think I would have any issue. But, flexibility was difficult to find. In fact, it can be non-existent. I distinctly remember during that time, my Husband asked me questions like, “What will the difference be at another firm or corporate place?” and stated things like, “You are still going to be expected to work long hours, you will still sit in traffic, people will still be stepping on each other to get that promotion, you’ll still feel trapped and unfulfilled…” The penny instantly dropped in that conversation of ours. I needed to do something completely different. I needed to be a boss and not an employee. So with the full backing of my Husband, I withdrew my CV from places I applied to and headed straight to the Law Society to register Cilliers Attorneys.
In terms of having the courage, I don’t think it was courage. At the time I felt like I was in sink or swim mode. I realised I needed to urgently do something, as I still had responsibilities, like debit orders to meet and a newborn that relied on me. I couldn’t just dump everything on my Husband and say it was his problem to figure out. Although, in saying that, I must advise that he did say to me that he would work five jobs if he had to for the sake of our family. He is really great like that and he has definitely done whatever he could do along this journey of opening and running the firm.
I also sought counsel from colleagues that I had gotten to know over the years and who owned their own firms. I gained wonderful encouragement from them! It was a hard road for me to get to the point of being able to open my own firm. I looked back and thought - I studied for 6 years, to obtain various qualifications and be more qualified than the norm, with what felt like endless tests and exams and one dissertation later (that took two years to complete) for my H. Dip, I did 3 years of articles (not 2 years like everyone else), I did the required PLT classes during my articles, twice a week, at night in Auckland Park for 6 months (that is not part of your degrees by the way but a pre-requisite to be admitted) and I also passed the board exams. Thereafter practising for a few years as an admitted attorney. So I wasn’t about to leave law after all of that. I had to make it work.
How did you find clients?
“In the beginning, I did not have a single client. It was daunting. I had to start from scratch. I would open my emails and the only emails I would receive those first few days was administration emails. One of the first things I had to do when I opened the law firm, was appoint an auditor and accountant. Both recommended a network to me called Business Network International, where various business owners get together on a regular basis and support each other’s businesses. This really changed the momentum of the firm. Friends and family also really went out of their way to support me and find referrals too. Something I am eternally grateful for. I constantly networked (and still do) and networking results in quality referrals. Emails started coming in slowly but surely and one client turned into another. Now my inbox overflows with emails all times of the day from various matters I am dealing with.”
How did you support yourself those first few weeks/months while you were still trying to grow the firm?
“I had some capital, but it only saw me through the first four months. I did what I needed to do. Again, the sink or swim philosophy was one I adopted. I did not have an option for this to not work out. I lectured law students for a year and a half, teaching various subjects three mornings a week. I would make sure I was well prepared for lecturing the students. I am also a qualified make-up artist (yes, I know, complete opposite spectrum to an attorney), so I would do bridal make-up on weekends at weddings and I would often get the brief from the bride beforehand, to draft the antenuptial contract and last wills and testaments."
Why did your Husband only join your firm two years after you opened it, seeing as you are both attorneys?
“It was never the plan for my Husband to join the firm, just like it was never the plan for me to actually open up my own firm. God’s hand was in this too, it is amazing how God just made way for him to be able to join the firm this year and now that he has joined the firm, I couldn’t imagine running it without him by my side. We have grown exponentially since he joined, as we now have more capacity with him being on board. We still deal with my Husband’s previous firm a lot, we refer work to them and vice versa. We grateful for their support and how they welcome us with open arms when we visit them. He learned invaluable experience there.”
Is it hard to work with your Husband?
“I think people assume we are together 24/7. However, we run different departments in the law firm and often do not see each other during the day, as one of us might be in the office, and the other in a meeting. Or we are both at different meetings out of the office. It has definitely been easier than I first anticipated, as I realised we really do complement each other’s departments. Clients love the fact that I can for example, do an antenuptial contract for them, they can then go to my Husband to do an offer to purchase agreement for a new property and then they can come back to me to assist in the transfer of that property. They love that we both know what is going on all the time and that we are a husband and wife team. We receive a lot of wonderful feedback from clients about this convenience.”
Lastly, is there any advice you can share to anyone else wanting to start their own law firm?
“Definitely! Where do I start?
First of all, do research! Ask your colleagues in the profession a lot of questions about starting your own firm. What is required of you etc. Specialise!
Secondly, you do not need a fancy office, twenty staff members, or a million rand in your bank account to start. In the legal profession, mostly everything you need, is stored in your brain & through technology, so technically, you could work from anywhere. Whether you are in casual clothes, or a tailored suit, you can still draft what you need to draft. Whether you in are a boardroom, coffee shop, or you go to the client’s house and/or office, you can still meet with a client. Think about that…Grow with your firm. Don’t wait for the perfect time, it does not exist.
Thirdly, don’t be fooled. There is a lot of stress, tears, pressure, insecurities, worries, responsibilities that come with owning your own law firm, and it never goes away! Every single month you have to make sure you’ve earned enough fees to cover everything. But at the same time, it is so rewarding, your time is your own, your quality of life is determined only by you and you will never look back or be disappointed. Do not let other people’s regrets and fears become yours.
Fourth, do what others are not prepared to do and be persistent. I remember when I was a still a student, I was worried about not finding articles at a law firm, as the ratio of students who graduate from all the universities to the articles available at law firms is out of proportion. So I asked a law firm, if I could do vacation work at their firm while I was still studying. They said they didn’t offer vacation work and even if they did, I wouldn’t get paid for it. I persisted, and said I would work for free and didn’t need a vacation programme, I would find ways to make myself useful and help their staff wherever I could but at the same time not be in their way. They finally agreed and I ended up “working” at the firm, one day a week, for free, for two years (my final two years of studying). When it came time to applying for articles, I asked the firm if I could hand in my CV. They laughed and said to me that I had been helping them consistently for two years, out of my own accord and without pay. That alone they said, was a CV to them, and that they already decided, before I asked them, that they would grant me articles. I never handed my actual CV in or had to go through an interview process like the others did at that firm. I still feel like I have that kind of attitude today – the do more than others would and be persistent attitude.
Fifth, I read an article once that said if you own your own business, and you do not have a proper website and your business does not have a facebook/twitter/instagram account, its sacrilege. In this day and age, this is how people communicate, you cannot say you don’t do technology or social media. You are then already doomed to fail. People do not want to do business with a company or firm that does not even have a website or social media footprint, as the business comes across as small fry or fly by night (even if it is not). People want to have access to you! I have really understood the weight of these words now that we run a firm! If you do not believe in your brand, no one else will.
Finally, something I did from day one, that definitely helped, was I surrounded myself with quality people that would help me grow. I did not and do not have any negative and/or unsupportive people in my life. It will just weigh you and your dreams down. #letthemgo ”