Ahead of International Women’s Day on the 8th of March, unLTD spoke to Donna Tilbrook, CEO of Best Solicitors, about what it takes to establish a successful business in a traditionally male-dominated sector, and how legal needs and expectations have changed over her 20+ years in law.
Founded in 2001 by three partners who shared a passion for helping people through legally aided work, Best Solicitors now comprises a team of over 30 legal professionals across its Sheffield, Barnsley, Stocksbridge and Filey offices, who are all committed to fair, accessible and compassionate support across a wide range of services.
From wills, probate and family matters to residential and commercial property, civil claims and criminal cases, the firm prides itself on transparency and efficiency to provide the best possible outcomes for clients in South Yorkshire and beyond. As of January 2023, Best Solicitors became a limited company and in her new role as CEO, Donna Tilbrook is driving its development based on her longstanding ethos of offering not only professional, but personable legal solutions.
What did the legal landscape look like back when you and your business partners founded Best Solicitors over 20 years ago?
Vanessa Saxton, John Booth, and I particularly enjoyed working on child care, crime, and family matters, supporting vulnerable individuals. These sectors tend to be legally aided, which means that law firms need a Specialist Quality Mark (SQM) alongside management standards and IT systems that ensure they can be properly monitored and audited by the Legal Aid Agency.
We wanted to maintain our commitment to doing legally aided work to make justice accessible to all, so we set up a new practice whose values aligned with social justice, human rights, and representing all communities’ interests.
Have you had to overcome challenges as a woman working in the male dominated legal sector?
I don’t think being a woman was a hindrance or an advantage in the areas of law we chose to focus on. The challenges were related to developing and expanding in areas of law that may be seen as less attractive by some firms.
It was what we loved doing, and it was aligned with our passion for helping the most vulnerable sections of society.
As a thriving firm with four regional offices and an extensive range of services, what are the secrets to your success?
We embraced technology within the business very early on and have continued to invest in our IT to enhance our service to clients. This has allowed the firm to be a forerunner of technological change, ultimately benefiting our clients. We knew that to be top of our game in providing an efficient service, our IT systems had to be an ongoing investment and that is still the case today.
Many law firms are catching up with this now. What we also maintained along the way was a personal touch: empathy for our clients, face-to-face interaction, and clear, transparent communication. To do this really well, with consistency, has been our greatest achievement and the cornerstone of Best Solicitors from day one.
How has the recent restructure, becoming a limited company with yourself as CEO, benefitted Best Solicitors’ core aims?
It has allowed us to become more efficient as a business; we did as much as we could as a partnership but ideally you want a management team where everyone feels invested and accountable.
This new way of operating has allowed us to merge our focus on what is best for the client with a very well-oiled machine. A limited company structure facilitates more flexibility and has opened so many different choices, whereby our committed and talented cohort of practitioners can be rewarded and invested in too.
Nurturing our people has always been important to Best Solicitors and we encourage everyone to feel that the sky’s the limit. Our Head of Finance, for example, joined the business at the age of 16 and is now in a management role and becoming a part owner. We lift barriers so our people can move forwards with confidence and develop their knowledge to deliver the best outcomes for both staff and clients.
Have you seen significant changes in your clients’ legal needs since founding the business in 2001?
Nowadays people have so many choices and their lives are so full with things they want or need to do, from buying a home to starting a business. As individuals and families embrace those choices, they need the expertise of a legal firm that can manage the whole range of decisions that might be made throughout their life.
Clients want a trusted law firm who can help with everything from conveyancing to motoring offences, and above all, somebody they can trust. So, we need to have a holistic approach that offers more flexibility to support people throughout many potentially difficult and stressful situations in their lives.
This became particularly apparent during the pandemic, when instructions for delivering wills and probate increased astronomically and everything had to be done virtually. We were able to adapt very quickly thanks to the IT capabilities we already had in place, and remote communication became a really useful addition to what we already did for clients.
Going forward, I think the way we work is going to be more sophisticated, with more choice for the client and speedier returns, while always maintaining the option of face-to-face communication.
What would you say sets Best Solicitors apart from its competitors?
The law is such a multifaceted industry. I think the key ingredients for success are empathy with the client and being approachable. Our services are delivered with humility and compassion because we acknowledge that everybody can be prone to making poor decisions which can sometimes come from dark places. We are there to support the client through those difficult situations and believe that empathy is an essential part of our role as solicitors.
Nobody knows when they might need the support of lawyers and the legal system, so being able to deliver that support with as much expertise as possible, and maintain that over time, is very important. Each client is trying to achieve a positive outcome, and we want to help them achieve that with care, thoughtfulness, and sensitivity.
What achievements are you personally most proud of during your time in the legal sector?
I am most proud of the consistency maintained at Best Solicitors, as it’s hard to do – when you are always trying to improve on something, looking at strengths and weaknesses, reflecting and modifying to move forward, consistency is essential. We have been able to achieve that because we are committed to our staff and in return, many of them have stayed with the business for several years.
Change is good, but often it has to come at the same time as consistency. Our clients like that they are instructing somebody who is part of a steady ship, and I think we have been able to not just survive but thrive for over 20 years in this industry by delivering a consistent approach. In turn, that has allowed us to embrace the changes.
What would you say to someone who felt nervous about needing to use legal services like those offered by Best Solicitors?
The perception that solicitors are distant and difficult only prevents the most vulnerable people from seeking help and that injustice troubles me deeply. Making legal services more accessible has always been one of my goals. The language you use is important because, historically at least, lawyers have tended to overcomplicate things with a ‘smoke and mirrors’ approach. We don’t do that, preferring to make our communication with clients as straightforward as possible so they can own the information.
Trust is also a huge factor. Imagine you want to make a will, so you form a relationship with the solicitor, then you want to buy a house and you have got to do that all over again. It is exhausting, and you are sharing a lot of personal information each time. We always talk about it as being invited into someone’s life, which is a real privilege, and you are often aiming to unravel and resolve their problems. If you can have everything under one roof, you only need to have one relationship in a way: with the firm. That’s why Best Solicitors aims to provide bespoke solutions to various legal problems that we may all face at different points throughout our lives.
About Donna Tilbrook
Donna Tilbrook is a highly experienced and practicing child care and international child abduction solicitor and CEO of Best Solicitors, running the business for over 20 years. She is also a triathlete and has recently trained as a yoga teacher! It’s probably fair to say that the general view of solicitors is that they are quite stuffy, but this is certainly not always the case. Donna is a mum of three and specialises in child care law – a very sensitive area which often means working with families in very stressful situations – and her busy personal and professional life is balanced with exercise.
“I like to get up early, I like a plan, and I try to make things fun. I have been part of the Sheffield Triathlon Club for more than 10 years. It is mostly about mental health for me – there are a lot of balls to keep in the air between work and home life, so to manage that you have got to be in tip top condition. Plus, I like to eat cake, buns and sweet things – I love a pick ‘n’ mix – and you can’t have one without the other!”