Building an empire

Building an empire

Young lawyers overcoming obstacles with all-female firm


Monday, June 10, 2019

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WHEN Chantel Howell, Schana Johnson and Nicolé Lawrence decided to start a law firm together, the odds were already stacked against them.

They were fresh out of law school with very little experience under their belts, none of them was wealthy nor well-connected, and they were women trying to make a name for themselves in a traditionally male-dominated field.

The firm was the brainchild of Johnson, who was friends with Lawrence from their days as students at Norman Manley Law School.

“When you leave law school, there is always a struggle to determine the path that you are going to take: Are you going to start working for a firm; are you going to work for the Government; or are you going to go off on your own?” Johnson shared with All Woman in a recent interview.

Stating that it is not easy to land a Government job without a strong network, and that she did not have the funds or know-how to start a business of her own, Johnson said she got a job at a law firm within a few months of graduating.

“I realised after a year that it wasn't necessarily for me,” she said. “It was a bit arrogant of me, but I decided that I was going to open my own firm,” the young attorney said.

One night while venting to Lawrence about her job, Lawrence mentioned the idea of starting a firm. “Nicki”, as she calls her, was completely on board and she roped in Howell, another friend whom she knew had an entrepreneurial spirit.

“We were three like-minded individuals who wanted the same thing, so we decided to find out how we could get this done,” Lawrence said of her team members, who are all under 35 years old.

That was December 2017, and by March 15 of the following year, Howell Johnson & Lawrence (HJL) was a registered law firm. The decision to use their surnames in alphabetical order to create the name of the firm was a solution to their first hurdle as a team, but it was by no means comparable to the uphill battle they had getting their business off the ground in the next few months.

“We are all coming from very humble backgrounds,” Lawrence, who is from Spanish Town, St Catherine, said. “Chantel was still living in Glengoffe, St Catherine, and she travelled to and from Kingston every day. Schana had just moved into her own apartment and I sold my car and started renting my own apartment in the Corporate Area. I wasn't even sure where the rent would come from.”

Lawrence's home served as the first business address for HJL when the clients started trickling in.

“We started in my living room. We had an area with a little black and red carpet, which served as the office. We had one little laptop and a printer that took half an hour to print half a page,” Lawrence shared, as the women recounted their journey. “When we wanted to meet clients, we had to rent meeting rooms. We would also meet them at places like [Jamaica] Pegasus [hotel].

“But I think they really saw the potential in us and they understood,” she continued. “So we soon started to grow — one good referral meant two new clients. One matter won meant that more good news would spread, and more people would hear about us. Soon we had to move from the living room.”

The trio started searching for business space in the Corporate Area that was within their budget. After several disappointing viewings, Howell received a call about an office space that was available in Half-Way-Tree, St Andrew, which soon became their new home.

“We cater to everyone, so we wanted a location that someone could hop off a JUTC (Jamaica Urban Transit Company) bus and come to our office — and this place was central, just off Westminster Road. We expected that the rent would be too much for us, but we decided to check it out anyway,” Lawrence said.

The owner of the complex was very excited at the idea of three young women starting a law firm on their own, and the trio used their clearly well-developed negotiation skills to get a good bargain on their rent.

“But we still didn't have office furniture,” Lawrence lamented.

“[The previous tenants] had used the space as a school, so there were desks, chairs and cupboards that were left behind and we used them,” Howell, who the group credits for being very resourceful, chimed in. “I remember when we went for the old filing cabinet outside, it was only two of the drawers that could have been opened — to this day we don't know what was inside the others.”

The women howled with laughter as they recalled their recycled office desk, squeaky chair, empty fish tank, and the lowly ottoman that served as the waiting area to their very cramped office.

“But people started coming, and soon we started buying our own furniture and swapping out the old ones. Eventually we took out everything, until it got to a point where we needed more space,” a smiling Johnson said. “So we acquired the space beside us, hit out the wall and expanded.”

Now HJL is a name that is gaining traction in legal circles, and is building its repertoire by providing exceptional representation and empathy to all clients, regardless of how insignificant the case may seem to other attorneys.

“I remember one of our first matters that we had, it was a man from downtown [Kingston], who was being charged for illegal possession of goods. He had a little stall and he had bought goods from people who went to China, to sell for profit. The police stopped him and asked where he got all the goods from, and he asked them to let him go to his house for the receipt, but he couldn't find it and they arrested him. He was in jail for a little while, and we got him through legal aid. He eventually found his receipts, but the police officers questioned their authenticity, and claimed that the business he got his goods from didn't exist. So I found the owner of the business, I made her come in and give a statement, and had someone witness it; I went to the Companies Office of Jamaica and copied her business registration, and I did a site visit myself and got photos of the business.

“When I went to court and submitted the documents, the judge said: 'Counsel, but you are doing the police's work!' She gave the police more time to do their investigation, but the officer came back saying he didn't intend to pursue the matter further, and he would return the goods,” Lawrence shared.

Though that case was a big win for the all-woman team, they have had to deal with their share of apparent prejudice in the legal profession because of their ages and gender.

“I remember once a potential client asked: 'So it's only women? Don't you think you need to have a man?'” Lawrence said. “And I can tell you that sometimes when some male attorneys call, and they find out that you are women, it's almost as if they want to push things down your throat.

“But I can push it back too, and I know that we can stand on our own as women, and we are just as strong as they are,” a confident Lawrence said.

The team has also had to learn to manage internal conflict, to prove the notion wrong that women cannot work well together.

“Each of us has a different personality, but what we always get back to is a sense of maturity, and the fact that we need this business to work. The pressure of having a business is very real, because it's not only the fact that you have to run a business and make sure that it's being run properly and is profitable, it's that you also have to be a lawyer, which itself is very taxing,” Johnson said. “So there may be days when you're not exactly happy-go-lucky, but you always have to remember that we have a common goal, and that is to make HJL work.”

Sharing a common goal and being from similarly humble backgrounds have made the women not just business partners but best friends, even to the point that they consider themselves family.

“The come-up for us was humbling. We can't be ungrateful. We know that someone is watching over us, because we are now thinking about going to another location,” a proud Johnson shared.

“At our location we're going to offer a catering service. Now we have a restaurant registered and we are also offering corporate service, where we are offering persons spaces to come in and rent for short periods. I remember when we were in that position where we had to find office spaces and we didn't have a lot of money, so we want to provide that service,” she continued.

“We aspire to make HJL an empire,” Howell smiled.

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