Legal issues with a tree? Tree Law is the place to call

Sarah Dodd's Tree Law is the UK's specialist for arboreal disputes
BizAge Interview Team
Sarah Dodd hugging a tree in a wood

Hi Sarah! What's your elevator pitch?

I am a tree hugging lawyer – sounds unusual right?

Well I specialise in legal claims involving trees. Whether that’s trees that have caused damage or are infringing someone’s rights, trees that are protected and cannot be touched, trees which are diseased and are at risk of failure and tree planting for biodiversity and carbon credits.

The business is carbon neutral and donates 10% of fees back to the client’s choice of charity on conclusion of their claim. Those donations are tracked in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Why does the market need it?

Claims involving trees have historically been dealt with in a traditional way which, ironically, pays little attention to the environmental consequences of the outcome of that legal advice. For example my clients have previously been UK insurance companies who can default to addressing risk caused by trees by simply removing the tree to limit risk and limit what they have to spend on repairing a property. In some situations there is the wrong tree in the wrong place and it needs to be removed, however that needs to be done only in the cases where it cannot be avoided and also with a suitable environmental ‘offset’, such as a replanting scheme to make-up for what has been lost. There is no other law firm specialising in claims involving trees and keeping the environment at the heart of the claim.

Where is the business today? 

Tree Law has just celebrated its first business birthday. This is a business which has been built from the ground up. On launch there were no clients and no work so it’s been a year of establishing a brand and a profile and starting to build-up a work stream. Tree Law has many different clients and is involved in lots of different sorts of tree work. From individuals who are pursuing a claim following damage to a property caused by a tree to strategic work for public sector land owners and advisory work for charitable tree organisations.

Tree Law came out of the first year in a profit and has set targets to build on the start-up success in year two and beyond. It is refreshing as a lawyer to be able to target the business on an amount to be billed in order to focus on the 10% of that to be donated and to be able to track and report on those donations in line with the UNSDGs.

What made you think there was money in this?

I am a lawyer with 20 years of corporate experience in this sector. I know that there is a great deal of work in this space, with clients who need this advice so I was fully confident in filling this gap in the market. However, building from a standing start there is no doubt that the first year has been modest in terms of revenue stream. However, what I could see when I looked into the market was that there really wasn’t another competitor carrying out this specialist work with the environment at the heart. I truly believe that, whilst there are those who aren’t worried about the environmental impact of their business process or the professional services that they procure, that this is something that will get increased attention in the course of the next few years.

I currently chair a sector forum, so have a good understanding of what is happening in the world of trees and litigation. I could see that no one was addressing environmental implications of these claims and I wanted to be able to address that in a new and fresh business, which could be agile enough to move and adapt with the changing landscape that clients find themselves in.

What's your biggest strength?

I think I have a few strengths. The first is the breadth of my industry knowledge. I head-up an industry sector group, I’ve worked with insurance companies, insured homeowners and public authorities. This gives me a perspective from all sides of the industry, which is unique.

I also love a plan – my old team used to say that they always knew what my plan was and they felt comforted by having an action plan and a direction. I still have that for myself in my new business; it gives me a structure and drives me towards fulfilling the plan.

I’m comfortable with figures and stats. Now I’m a year into the business I can reflect on figures and trends to make some projections (to feed into my plan!). I love working with figures so I really enjoy this part of the business.

But, I think my biggest strength is that I truly enjoy doing what I’m doing. Someone commented in a meeting the other day on how much it’s clear that I really love what I was talking about; and I really do. My business aligns my working life with my personal objectives and that alignment gives me a passion and enthusiasm that my clients see and appreciate.

What is the secret to making the business work?

I’m not sure I’m ready to answer that question fully at the end of my first full year. Building up a law firm business is going to be at least a 3-5 year project. Making the business work in the first five years is going to depend on the strength of the foundations that I’m building now. Those come in the form of connections made, relationships built and knowledge gathered. In time that will make the business thrive.

How do you market the company?

In a few ways. Branding, social media, local networking, winning awards, YouTube, and being on the NatWest Entrepreneur Accelerator cohort. When I launched I didn’t plan to take a physical office space so I was very conscious of building a solid virtual presence for the business. I worked with a graphic designer to create a logo that was fresh and bright and would be reflective of me and the ethos that I wanted to bring to the business. I have upskilled myself on the use of social media platforms via help from marketing groups and I market the business through the online presence. For example, I have launched a YouTube channel providing free legal content (Tree Law TV & Tree Oclock News) and I speak to network and industry events about tree claims. Also more widely in new networks such as the entrepreneur networks that I am now part of.

The crux of my marketing is to be congruent in all that I do, all content I produce and all places that I show-up virtually so that all clients know the real me. They really get to know my business and whether they want to work with me.

What funding do you have? Is it enough?

Good question. I am the sole director of the business. The funding that I put into initially came from personal investment. My husband and I downsized our house and invested equity from the sale into the business. I also sold my car and invested that into the business. As well as being cash injections both downsizing and no longer owning a car align with the business objectives of decarbonisation. That funding has been enough to get the business up and running and support me through the first year. The remaining funding is likely to be enough to support me through the second year. There is no doubt however that additional funding from external sources would allow me to expand and scale the business quicker. That is part of my thought process when setting out my business plan for year two of the business.

Tell us about the business model

I came from a business of managing a multi million pound team so it took me a while to get my head around the business model of growing my business from the ground up. The model is that I am current a law firm of one person. Now this is tricky because a law firm is heavily regulated and there are certain costs that I have to incur in order to be able to meet the regulatory requirements. The biggest of those is liability insurance. My insurance policy as a sole trader carrying out civil litigation work is around £10,000. There are other running costs such as case management system licence, accountant, regulatory fees, credit checks/onboarding system, accounting software, marketing software and packages (eg, LinkedIn premium), to name a few. This gives my business a monthly break-even cost of around £1700 meaning that I need to bill that amount before I even start to move into bringing in any money.

As a lawyer I mainly work on hourly rates. That varies slightly depending on the type of client that I am working for. At it’s lowest it is £150 per hour, at its highest its £250 per hour. As a Grade A fee earner, when giving legal advice in the London area, a rate of £250 is incredibly reasonable. In terms of hitting that break-even figure, if working at my £250 per hour rate, it is a days work to generate enough chargeable time to bill up to the break-even.

Moving forward I feel that I have three options to consider for my business model. First, keep as a solo business and outsource some more operational tasks to a member of support staff or a paralegal/legal apprentice. Second, grow the business as per a traditional law firm, taking on staff (legal and support) as the firm grows. Third, grow the business by creating more of a consultancy platform. That would mean fewer members of employed staff but move the business to be able to offer clients a greater variety of legal services under the Tree Law banner and using a % of the fees that those consultants bill to invest into the business systems, marketing and support.

It means a lot to me to support and train junior colleagues so I would like the model that I move towards to involve supporting people through either a legal apprenticeship or qualification to a solicitor via an alternative route.

Also I see a huge value in non legal roles. If I do want to grow the firm into a consultancy style platform I will need to change the firm to be an ABS model and change that with the regulator. However that might give us increased freedom to move into other areas that we would otherwise stay away from.

The beauty of it being my business and being new and agile is that I can explore all of these options and move quickly once the time is right to follow a specific path.

What were you doing before?

I have been a qualified lawyer since 2002. The last 20 years have involved me working in large corporate law firms. I spent 14 years at Eversheds and six years at DACBeachcroft. At Eversheds I worked with insurance companies, utility companies and banks. At DACBeachcroft I worked mainly with insurance companies.

One year in, what are you most proud of / what have been the biggest challenges you’ve overcome?

Sometimes I feel like I should pinch myself and ask if I have really gone ahead and set up a firm! I can’t believe I’ve done it. Starting out it seemed such an onerous thing to do, so many steps to go through and so many things to set up. I feel like the biggest challenge to date was the time in the run-up to launch. I got asked a lot about my reasoning behind leaving corporate law and setting up on my own. As my business is so values driven and as I was taking a huge leap into the unknown, justifying my decisions felt scary and risky. Staying resilient enough to move forward into my business at a time of huge pressure really was an enormous challenge but one that I am super proud to say that I overcame.

Are there any technologies you've found useful?

My business is virtual so I rely entirely on technology. My Samsung smartphone and my HP Envy laptop are the core bits of equipment but, in terms of software, I use:

  • Clio case management system for legal firms – which is an excellent cloud-based case management system allowing me to run paperless files and allow my clients online access to their files should they want it
  • Indentitech onboarding platform – allowing me to do client onboard quickly and easily. This is a south Wales start-up company who I met through the StartUp Awards and who has launched an awesome product
  • Canva – This is the home of all of my marketing content. I market the business myself and I simply couldn’t do that without Canva
  • Ecologi – as the ethos of the business is the environment I am working to support tree replanting schemes and tracking the business’ carbon footprint and offsets. Ecologi makes this super easy to do and to track
  • Access legal training software – allowing me to keep up to date with all key and core legal training requirements as part of my own CPD
  • Xero – accounting software which is super easy to share with my accountant and track revenue and overheads

What is the future vision?

As I’ve said, I love a plan and I hope that in following the plan I will achieve my future vision, which is to build a team to focus on a wide range of areas of law, but with the overarching ethos of providing legal services that ‘won’t cost us the earth’.

So putting the environment at the heart of legal services and to support our clients’ chosen charities in the work that we do. For me, it’s about providing a service that works on behalf of the planet as well as my clients.

Written by
BizAge Interview Team
January 9, 2023