Lawyer Carol Grimshaw was a high school dropout who went on to launch a boutique law firm in her 40s. She has since been recognised as one of 50 elite women in the Australian legal industry. Here she shares the lessons she has learned from launching her own business.
What inspired you to launch your own business?
In 2018, after five years of working as a lawyer but with 20 years of industry experience, I founded my firms, Grimshaw Legal and Aide Lawyers, because I wanted to do law differently. One thing I rarely saw was a lawyer who wished for their clients to learn and adapt their behaviour to reduce their risk and prevent future problems.
Starting a business takes courage. What obstacles did you have to overcome?
From one perspective: largely, myself.
As a high school dropout from a less than working-class family, my self-doubt is natural, and I control it with feedback from my lawyers and student volunteers who work with me.
Not having connections in the industry and being an “opinionated woman” has meant I’ve missed out on well-paid permanent jobs because I tend to speak my mind.
Also, the legal profession remains patriarchal. Despite women occupying more than half of all legal roles, they continue to experience inequality, harassment, bullying, and discrimination. The Dear Sir(s) Project is one way that I overcome misogyny.
The other is to wait until the right moment pops up in conversation for me to identify the sexism and announce it. While uncomfortable at the time, if we remain silent, women will not experience change and risk a return to more conservative times. The overturning of Roe v Wade in the USA is just one example of that occurring.
What challenges have you faced running your business, and how did you resolve them?
Cash flow is the toughest to manage because I do a fair amount of discounted fee or pro bono work for those who would otherwise go without a lawyer. Sometimes, I go without so my clients can pay in small amounts over time.
Throughout my career I have supported my former employers’ businesses, but it is truly different as a business owner. Starting from scratch has meant relying on over 20 years of experience. However, I didn’t anticipate that I still needed to learn how to market my services and manage others’ unethical conduct.
It has also taken a few years to work out that I do not need every client who calls (nor do I want them) and that client fit is essential, especially if I’m working with them long-term.
What achievement/s you are most proud of and why?
Also, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was an advisor to the Victorian government for electronic document signing. No longer is it necessary for Victorians to meet with a lawyer to have documents physically witnessed. It saves people the time, inconvenience and cost of in-person meetings – forever. Quite phenomenal, really.
Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome? How did you address it?
I experience imposter syndrome (although I’m getting better at working through it). It helps to know that my work has impacted many people.
In terms of speaking in front of others, I learned a trick that everyone should use. That is, no one in the audience knows when you make a mistake or that what you presented wasn’t what you’d prepared or intended. That trick is the best gift I’ve ever received.
Who has been your biggest champion on your journey and how did they help you?
In my late teens, my grandmother changed my life by asking me to return to school as a mature-aged student, becoming the first in my family to complete secondary education and enter tertiary education.
In my 30s, my biggest champion changed the direction of my life. He was a barrister I worked for from 2002-2004 when I signed my application to study postgraduate law at Monash University. He saw in me what I couldn’t see in myself, and he introduced me to a world that changed the course of my life: intellectually, at work, and personally. His encouragement helped me become who I am today. Sadly, he died in 2019. He would have been delighted to see me run my own law firm.
I have been blessed to have those people see and support me throughout life. Whether it be one conversation, or half of my teenage years spent in their homes, I am beyond fortunate to have known and know excellent people.
What skills do you believe women must have to succeed as a leader?
Whichever knowledge, skills and licensing is required for their trade or industry. They also need the following attributes:
- boundary setting
- sufficient wit to know when they need professional advice.
Work/life balance can be difficult. How do you manage it, and can you share your ‘tricks of the trade’?
The myth is that anyone can have it all. The trick is understanding the only way to have it all, is to hire good staff in your business and for your home tasks, or caregiving duties.
Make tough choices that start with putting yourself first. Without you, the rest does not happen.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
This is a Sliding Doors question. While hindsight is a tricky mistress, I would have ignored romance in my 20s and 30s, completed my education and started my formal legal career sooner.
The tricky part is that would have meant not meeting some of my most fabulous friends and mentors, because our paths would not have crossed. For example, I would not have worked in an information technology company when I was 15 and learned about IT, which helped me in my career. And I would have been a different person, not likely to have founded a boutique law firm in my late 40s.
I want to convey that we each walk our own path. Yours will certainly tell you when you are ready to take a leap. Have the courage to leap or walk the diverging path. It will benefit you, even if you go through hardship at some point because of that decision. Not all learning is meant to be positive, but all learning is great.
Carol Grimshaw’s Top 3 Leadership Lessons Learned:
1. Be firm, fair, and friendly with staff and customers.
2. Learn, set, and practice boundaries – for you, your business and clients.
3. Yes, you can.
© Laini Bennett, MBA