ABS – the Saviour of Solos and Small Firms?

Recently I spoke at lawTechcamp at the University of Toronto about the future practice of law. The session generated a great deal of discussion with the audience, some of it quite heated – particularly when I raised the question, “Why should we hire students or junior associates?” The point of my question was to force lawyers to question everything we do – not take any process or practice as a given. The players in the legal industry who are able to forget the past and re-invent how legal services are delivered will be wildly successful.

One of the questions from lawTechcamp was, “How can small firms and solo practitioners become more innovative, given the lack of capital and economies of scale?” I didn’t have much of an answer at that time. However, the more I thought through the issue, the more I realized that perhaps the days of solo and small firms are numbered. A new model is needed – that of a franchise or of a co-ordinated national network of offices.

I look to the UK for inspiration on this point – and the news is incredibly exciting.

It seems that every month a new Alternative Business Structure (ABS) is announced, all of whom are dedicated to making legal services more accessible than ever before. Two recent announcements have application to solos and small firms.

Stobart Barristers is the creation of UK trucking giant Stobart Lorries – who knew that trucking companies would have an interest in the legal field? Stobart Barristers looks to generate £10m in fees over its first three years by acting as an intermediary that puts clients directly in touch with barristers (without using a solicitor as middleman) – this is a situation unique to the UK – and receive its part of the fee from the client. Fees for barristers are fixed based on the nature of the matter.

The Co-operative Group (CLS) has just announced that it’s expanding its legal services and funeral planning services to all 330 branches of The Co-operative Bank and Britannia. Legal and funeral???? A new family law operation will also open in London late this year. This means something that is quite new for the legal service industry – a slew of new jobs! 3,000 to be exact; with about 90% of them to be fee-earner positions. As the CEO of CLS said to Legal Futures, “We already have a first-class reputation for delivering professional services. We see the law as yet another area where a Co-operative solution can be successfully applied for the customer’s benefit. Over the next five years we want to fundamentally change the face of legal services and make access far easier – today’s announcement underlines that ambition…We believe that the presence of The Co-operative’s trusted brand and values, our UK-wide branch network, first class people and services together with fair and fixed pricing options, will enable customers to find it much easier to access expert legal advice from someone they trust.”

So, circling back to the lawTechcamp question of what can solo and small firms do?

Learn from the UK experience and lobby provincial governments to permit outside investment so that we can all take advantage of the innovations necessary to create accessible and affordable legal services.


  1. Well, seeing as how the professional is unable, unwilling and probably incompetent at delivering the services John Q Public needs at a price that John Q Public can pay, probably ABS is required on this side of the pond too.

    The law is not merely the purview of the moneyed elite as it sometimes seems to be.

    That said, how will professional obligations be maintained in the new arena? I guess the barristers and solicitors of the U.K. shall lead the way and let us know by trial an error.

  2. Mitch
    Nice post
    I am reading this on the ABS side of the pond, so I thought I might add to the debate.
    First, what is happening in the UK market is nothing short of a revolution in legal services. Long time Slaw readers will know that
    Second, of the 2 examples you gave, Co-op is the one to watch. They are a multi faceted consumer brand – groceries, financial services, funerals and now legal – with presence on most high streets in the UK. Stobart is, frankly speaking, odd
    Third, the most pertinent development in the UK for small and solos is the creation of franchises such as Quality Solicitors – firms can apply to be part of the franchise and if approved get to benefit from a big brand with huge marketing spend (a recent £15m tv ad campaign for example). It’s more than safety in numbers.
    Finally in response to the previous poster, the legal market regulator (the Solicitors Regulation Authority) has been beefed up to ensure the new regime works. It took 4 years from announcement of the changes to their implementation and there are very strict checks made on anyone applying to be an ABS. To date several hundred applications have been made and only 6 have been approved, with the others still going through the process

    I’d be very happy to chat to anyone about what is going on over here, if I can be at all helpful

    Nick West
    Director of Legal Markets, LexisNexis UK