How I built the UK's fastest growing challenger law firm

Sarah Goulbourne started law firm Gunnercooke in a Costa Coffee in 2010. Now it's turning over £20m. Here's how she's shaking up the legal sector.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 08 Nov 2017

At the age of 45, Sarah Goulbourne decided to throw the book at the legal sector and start her own challenger law firm.

Together with co-founder Darryl Cooke, they launched Gunnercooke in 2010 to make ‘law work better’. It’s not a traditional LLP, it doesn’t have the usual partnership structure and lawyers don’t bill by the hour – everything is charged on a fixed-fee basis, so there are no dreaded time-sheets and no unexpected costs for clients. Gunnercooke's lawyers are all profit-sharers and they work on the cloud, so they can be based anywhere: ‘People should be able to practice law without sacrificing their personal life,’ says Goulbourne.

From starting out with ‘two people, two laptops and one idea in a Costa Coffee’, Gunnercooke is now one of the fastest growing commercial law firms in the country, turning over £20m and working with more than 6,500 clients, including the likes of Santander, Mitie and Bovis Homes.

Goulbourne spent 25 years working in the sector before deciding to disrupt it. She grew up in Chester and followed in her father's footsteps by studying law, before joining Bank of Scotland as a commercial lawyer.

After having her second child, Goulbourne started looking for a new job: ‘I wasn’t happy to take 12 weeks’ maternity leave – that’s all you got in those days – and go back to the role full-time, so I teamed up with a company secretary and we packaged ourselves as a job share. That was pretty much unheard of back then. We didn’t have the internet; we went to the local library, got out the business directory and wrote to the CEOs and FDs of around 20 companies, asking them if they’d like to hire us for a combined lawyer/company secretary role.’

Publishing giant Trinity Mirror took them on. ‘The job came with a company car. We said: "Please could we have two small VW Polos instead?" It was a true job share; we did 2.5 days each with a handover on a Wednesday lunchtime. We’d record notes to each other on an old-fashioned dictaphone. We made it work.’

Goulbourne went on to work at Stanley Leisure, heading up its legal team, but left in 2006 to do an MBA at Manchester Business School.

‘My two sons were in their teens by that stage so it felt like the right time to do it. I was the oldest person on my course but I loved it, especially the entrepreneurship module.’

Inspired to start her own business, she linked up with Darryl Cooke to launch Gunnercooke. ‘We’d known each other for years through a networking group for lawyers – and we’d both become disenchanted with the way legal services were being delivered. We knew we could shake things up,’ says Goulbourne.

They funded the business out of their own pockets and hired their first lawyer in 2011. ‘We didn’t draw any money out of the business for two years. I ran out of money personally and had to take on a part-time job too, which was tough. But we knew Gunnercooke had legs. We were bold, we were agile and we weren’t afraid to try new things.’

There are now 146 lawyers in the Gunnercooke network, and each one has at least 10,000 hours of legal experience under their belts. (Goulbourne: ‘As Malcolm Gladwell said, "10,000 hours of practice makes you an expert."')

The company has hubs in Manchester, Leeds and London but Goulbourne stresses that 'our model is set up so you can work from your holiday home in France, if you want.’

‘We’re all about output, not presenteeism. The whole world needs to move away from that.'

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