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Having been asked to write a piece on the history of Caveat, I’m struck by the thought that we’ve come far enough to even have a history. Caveat turns 8 this year. Time really has flown – probably because we really have been having fun. I never knew a job could be so much fun, even as an ambitiously scaling enterprise with all the hurdles that have shown up along the way.

Looking back to where it all came from, and the choices I’ve made to keep only the positives of traditional practice and jettison the negatives, I see now why business model design – when taken seriously, done creatively and implemented meticulously – can be the ticket to advancement of the profession and real work satisfaction for professionals.

So where did it all start? Having embarked on the route of traditional practice, first at Bowmans and then at the Bar, I had been thoroughly enjoying my work from an intellectual point of view but had noticed my growing unease at the exclusivity of the profession. I had entered it with an innate sense of justice and a need to help people, but before I knew it I had lost sight of that completely, and was head-down working long hours for whoever could pay my fees. 

Time off to have kids in 2008 gave me some distance from work, and some much-needed perspective. It became clear that balancing kids and work at the Bar would be very challenging, as much as I had enjoyed my time at the Bar. I busied myself studying a masters degree and assisting at UCT, but as the time came to make decisions about my career, I realised that traditional practice was not for me. Not for the new me, who wanted an enjoyable life with my family.

At around that time, I started to cotton on to the idea that there were other ways to do legal work, less cumbersome and clumsy ways, less expensive ways. I noticed that in other markets – the US in particular – entrepreneurial lawyers were finding creative ways to provide the same service, but without the added (and unnecessary) costs. It made perfect sense: In an age where people can work from anywhere, legal services should be easy to deliver without the large buildings and teams of support staff, without compromising on quality.

Looking around me, I could count a good few friends who were highly accomplished director-level Big Firm lawyers who did not enjoy their inflexible working environments, where they were endlessly chasing fee targets for the benefit of those above them in the pecking order, but who had no alternatives. So I made a decision to create South Africa’s first alternative legal services provider.

Since then, we’ve gone from 5 to 55 lawyers on our panel with a combined 717 years’ experience servicing clients around the world. Doing away with bricks and mortar infrastructure allowed me to design a business model that meant that clients could get access to former Big Firm lawyers at around 2/3 of the price they would ordinarily have paid to the Big Firms for those lawyers, with the lawyers earning a significantly more for their time than they had in the Big Firms – so everyone wins.

The model allows lawyers to have complete control over their working lives and gives clients the reassurance that they have access to a huge legal team that they don’t need to hire as employees. Flexibility is the name of the game, and complete transparency around cost makes it a no brainer.

What was interesting to me was where the business settled down in the market: squarely within theinvestment space. We first gained traction with investor clients, private equity and VC firms, who had worked enough with Big Firm lawyers to be able to trust their judgment on good versus poor legal work. Word spread quickly within this environment where our clients have remained loyal over the years.

We were soon being asked to service huge corporate clients and banks on secondments for projects, which our panel members have thoroughly enjoyed.  Demand has come least from startups and small businesses, for whom funds for legal spend are limited. We’re addressing this by designing retainer packages where these businesses can have access to on-call legal services at fixed fees.

One of the greatest challenges has been educating the market about the value of alternative legal service providers. As South Africa’s first to market, the responsibility has rested on our shoulders, which hasn’t been easy. Competitors have come and gone, but slowly the market has started seeking alternatives to traditional practice which hasn’t responded to its changing needs.

Next steps? Increasing our footprint even further within South Africa, growing our Multi-jurisdiction Panel and overseas client base, launching our retainer packages to startups and small businesses, and supporting our long-planned social impact endeavor, The Warrior Project. 

So looking back, it’s been a wonderful journey, with lots of challenges but lots of fun too, building exceptional relationships and enjoying our work. The future is bright.

Yvonne Wakefield

Founder and CEO