Belfast Telegraph

From litigation to mediation for legal eagle Dorcas

With more than 14,000 Twitter followers, Belfast Hour has become a mainstay for hundreds of businesses across Northern Ireland.

The initiative offers businesspeople and entrepreneurs the opportunity to network and promote their companies for free between 9pm and 10pm every Thursday.

Participants can post information about their business or even just chat with other users, just by using the hashtag #BelfastHour.

It was launched in June 2014 and an average of 550 businesses engage with one another each week, with a reach of around 1.2m.

For those who don't know, the person behind the social media sensation is 52-year-old Dorcas Crawford - senior partner at Belfast law firm Edwards & Co Solicitors. She'll address the next TEDxStormont, which takes place on October 27, on the success of #belfasthour.

It may seem like a departure from the usual service provided by a law firm, but Dorcas said she has been forced to rethink the way the business works in order to safeguard its future.

"People always think a PR firm is behind Belfast Hour when in fact it is us," she said.

"I joined the firm 29 years ago and I've never been anywhere else. I always wanted to be a lawyer and I joined the firm in 1987. I had a gap year to see if I liked it, and I stayed there and I've basically been there ever since.

"Then when the previous senior partner retired in 2005, I became the senior partner and I've been managing the firm ever since. We have had to change our practices as legal services have changed in the last 10 years.

"We would have done a lot of personal injury litigation, it would have made up about 60% of our business, but the market has changed.

"You have insurance companies coming in and trying to resolve things at a much earlier stage, which is a big factor. Basically, a firm like us, if we wanted to survive we had to change so about 10 years ago we got a strategic planning consultant to come in, which no other law firms had done. We decided to look at the direction of the firm and tried to get into areas that were up and coming."

The proportion of personal injury litigation carried out by Edwards & Co now stands at about 30% and has been replaced by working with charities and social enterprises, as well as family law, and small to medium-sized enterprises.

There has been a greater demand by charities for legal services since the introduction of the Charity Commission, while the increase in divorce has resulted in more people needing legal representation.

They have taken on additional staff to deal with the work.

"We have gone from one partner working on that, to two, with another helping, so we have doubled in size in the last four years," said Dorcas.

Meanwhile, the company's work with small and medium businesses resulted in the establishment of Belfast Hour.

"It started out as a marketing tool to bring in more business but it has turned into something people really love," said Dorcas.

"It's very competitive out there and we have to tender for public sector contracts, which are very time consuming and sometimes they are not very rewarding.

"Word of mouth is very important when it comes to winning business, with about 65% of our clients repeat business. But Belfast Hour has been great for us, although it takes an awful lot of time, but it pays off."

The change in direction for the firm followed on from a change in professional direction for Dorcas.

After spending two decades working in personal injury litigation, she became disillusioned with it.

"I had really had enough of litigation in my own career," she said. "I didn't particularly enjoy it, I had become despondent.

"I did this massive case, a group action of 5,000 police officers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and it was exhausting. I found the process wasn't helpful to the police officers who were already suffering." As a result, she trained as a mediator and she has now developed a specialist mediation service called The Better Way.

She travelled to Washington DC last area month to work with major firms there on how best to resolve differences in the boardroom. It is an area she feels passionately about.

"I have absolutely loved it from the beginning. It has been very rewarding to continue working in the legal profession but develop new skills," said Dorcas.

"I am very lucky that I found something I could practise and be fulfilled by. It works in every aspect of work life, from running a business with staff, partners, colleagues, and people in other businesses.

"I was probably slightly reluctant to go from being a lawyer to the business side of things. But I don't really do anything in life less than 100% and as soon as I started doing it I got really into it.

"It surprised me because I actually enjoy it more than I ever thought. I do feel like the success you have makes it all feel like it is worth it."

Belfast Telegraph