Each month we showcase some of the fantastic stories our community of business owners and professionals have to share.
This month Daniel Sokol, the founder of Alpha Academic Appeals, speaks to Virtalent about what made him start the business, the challenges of gaining the trust of his customers and what his plans for the future are.
Hi Daniel, could you please introduce yourself and tell us a little about what you do?
I’m Daniel Sokol. I’m a barrister and the founder of Alpha Academic Appeals. We’re a team of 4 barristers whose goal is to help university students challenge unfair decisions. That could range from a university’s decision to expel a student for cheating to a decision to fail a student’s assignment.
These are potentially life-changing (or career-altering) decisions for students and we aim to provide the very highest quality advice and representation.
Thanks, Daniel. It sounds like you can have some very challenging cases pop up at the drop of a hat. So, what does a typical day look like for you?
There is no typical day. All of us appear in Court regularly. We provide free initial advice by telephone and live chat on our website so some time is spent addressing those queries every day. We have regular consultations, either in person or by Skype (we now have clients all over the world, including Australia), where we offer advice on evidence, tactics, arguments and so on. We offer training sessions on student appeals for Student Union advisers and members of university staff. We publish articles on appeals to help improve standards. And of course, we write appeal statements, letters and other important documents for students. As barristers, we are trained to write persuasively so this is a skill that is sought after from our clients.
Looks like you have extremely packed and varied days, you must really love what you do. Why exactly did you choose to work in your industry?
I fell into it when a friend of mine failed her PhD and I helped her appeal (and win). Despite what some universities say, it’s a difficult and daunting process for many students, especially as the stakes are so high. There is no room for error.
The quality of decision-making at the university level is also variable as those making the decisions receive no or little training in making fair decisions. They are generally not lawyers, but academics who have been told they will be in charge of appeals. The principles of natural justice do not always come readily to them, as they do to even the most junior judges in the county courts. This increases the risk of poor decisions.
We have grown a lot since our creation in 2011 but I still get the same sense of satisfaction – and relief – as I did when I first started when a student (or parent) calls me to say they’ve won their appeal.
“Our Virtalent Virtual Assistant has allowed the whole operation to run efficiently, which is particularly important in our field as appeal deadlines can be tight”
Your passion for your clients and justice really shines through. I imagine it is not always satisfying, there must have have been tough times. What has been your biggest challenge since starting your company?
Gaining the trust of customers. It certainly helps that, as barristers, we are regulated by the Bar Council. I have also recruited a stellar team of experienced barristers who are bright, articulate, and efficient of course but also empathetic and kind. Thanks to our work over the years, we have acquired a reputation for high-quality service and now have lots of word-of-mouth referrals, positive and unprompted reviews on student fora, links with embassies, ‘celebrity’ clients, and even recommendations by academics and student unions.
So, what does the future look like? What is your vision or long-term aim for the business?
As demand for our services outstrips supply, we plan to continue our expansion by recruiting yet more barristers to our team. We may also branch out to provide advice and representation to students in other areas, such as contractual disputes, housing, and immigration.
Sounds like you have an exciting time ahead. How did you hear about Virtalent in the first place?
I wanted the administrative support of the highest calibre and searched online for a company that matched that description. As advisers, we want to focus all our efforts on helping students with their problems and not with invoicing and other administrative matters, but these matters are important and must be done properly.
It’s great to hear that we are a great fit for you. So, after finding Virtalent what tasks and projects have we been supporting you with? How has this support changed the way you work?
With liaising with the client and arranging prompt payment to allow the advisers to get on with their work. Also, with good record keeping, general customer care, the creation of a Facebook page full of great content and the execution of Facebook campaigns. Our Virtalent Virtual Assistant has allowed the whole operation to run efficiently, which is particularly important in our field as appeal deadlines can be tight.