I hit rock bottom – and found the entrepreneur’s greatest weapon

Like with most sought-after professions, the road to being a lawyer is often a long and drawn-out one.

When Lilly Ngeresa finally got her admittance to the bar, she thought her greatest hurdles were behind her. But seven years into practicing law, the 32-year-old single mother decided to take her career a step further and start her own law firm, Ngeresa & Okallo Associates.

Lilly talks to Hustle about her decision to walk away from employment, and the challenging yet fulfilling journey of running her business.

What made you decide to become a lawyer?

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I liked the idea of helping people, especially in a way that didn’t take advantage of a bad situation. When most people see lawyers show up at the door, it’s because they have a problem or need some issue handled. I find that being at the centre of this gives me purpose.

What’s it taken for you to become a lawyer?

First, of course, is law school, which took me four years. I graduated from the University of Nairobi in December 2009. I then went to the Kenya School of Law for a year, completing and sitting for my bar exams in 2010. After this, I did my pupillage, which is the equivalent of being an apprentice or an intern. That lasted six months.

Do you get paid during pupillage?

I got an allowance, yes. But it’s usually a very difficult time for aspiring lawyers. My allowance was Sh5,000 and I was living in a bedsitter, which cost Sh4,500, with my sister. My parents graciously subsidised our bills. Thankfully I passed my bar exam the first time around. It costs Sh10,000 per paper to re-sit the exam, and there are about nine papers.

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After passing the exam, what comes next?

You petition the Chief Justice to be gazetted as a lawyer. This happened for me in December 2011, which is also when I got my first job.

After all this, and while still pretty young, you decided to walk away from employment and start your own firm. Why?

I liked employment because of the stability and the learning it offered me, but I also knew at the back of my mind that no one can be employed forever. Further, you’re always at someone else’s mercy.

When I got pregnant in 2014, this became even clearer. As a single mother, it was extremely difficult to balance my work requirements and being a parent. I didn’t want to be inefficient as an employee and I didn’t want to be absent from my daughter’s life.

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This is something many working women go through. I think it’s an inevitable challenge, especially when you’re raising a child alone. I was blessed with a good nanny when my daughter was three months old. However, leaving my child in someone else’s care for most of the day was still tough.

Also, being a lawyer sometimes means long hours and working on weekends. It’s just me and my daughter, so if I’m not home for a long stretch of time it means she doesn’t have a parent around.

How did that change when you started your own firm?

There were definitely pros and cons to going it alone. I had registered my company back in 2015, but didn’t do much with it until 2017. The pro was that I could determine my working hours, the con was the money factor. I’d been earning Sh75,000 net when I left my job. Now there was no guarantee cash would come in.

What was your start-up capital?

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Apart from the rent for the small space I occupied, which was Sh18,000, I only invested in a table and a chair. I already had a computer and a cabinet, so I brought them into the office. Now the issue was getting clients.

They were very scarce. I only handled about three cases between January and May last year; one in January, one in March and one in May.

How did you survive financially?

The office and the business paid for itself because my overheads were extremely low.

I didn’t have any employees and would pay process servers as and when I needed them. These are the people you send to file cases in court, deliver letters, and so on.

But I didn’t have enough money to sustain myself in terms of rent and upkeep for my daughter and myself. My daughter’s father, whom I’d been with on and off over the years, helped supplement our needs.

During this time, what would you say was your greatest low?

It would have to be August 2017. There was no business, I had used up all my savings, I had to recall my life policy plan and I had just moved into a new house with my daughter when my ex and I made a final break from each other. I was emotionally drained, financially out and physically exhausted.

What kept you going?

My daughter. I’d wake up in the morning wanting to give up but then, what would happen to her? Who would take care of her? So I got up, went to work and hoped for a better day.

So, what turned things around?

Honestly, I think it was just my resilience. I can’t say anything huge or defining happened. But as I’d been very deliberate in being diligent and offering quality representation at affordable costs, my client base grew.

In January this year, my business suddenly boomed. Sometimes I think success happens when we simply put our heads down and decide it will happen, no matter what; when we have a reason strong enough to move us away from what we don’t desire to a place we wish to be.

How many clients do you have?

I now have 20 clients. The business is completely paying for itself and taking care of my personal bills.

Last year, during that very difficult period, I had to borrow money to survive. I’ve paid that back and I’m beginning to put savings aside.

I’ve also taken on board a lawyer who’s in her pupillage waiting admittance to the bar. I pay her an allowance.

In a weird way, things have come full circle. That was me, eight years ago.

What services does your firm offer?

We do civil litigation, which involves employment-related issues like wrongful termination and workplace injuries.

We handle divorce matters, family succession (inheritance), constitutional rights violations and so on.

We also do conveyance, which involves transference of land ownership.

We handle commercial law, like looking through contractual agreements or registration of companies.

And I’m currently getting my qualifications as an arbitrator from the Chartered Institute of Arbitration.

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