North-west ABS targets national practice after London launch

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By Legal Futures

10 May 2013

Harrison: sometimes you have to take risks

A top north-west alternative business structure (ABS) has continued its expansion by moving into London.

Fresh from its ABS licence approval in January, Stephensons is seizing on the “flexibility” of its new structure to muscle in on the London conveyancing market.

Stephensons chairwoman Ann Harrison said the step from a regional firm into a national practice is “a historic day” and that the firm’s “expansionist” mindset means it is willing to take risks even in a contracting market.

Ms Harrison, who is speaking at next month’s Legal Futures Conference, said: “For us, ABS is about flexibility. It gives us the opportunity to look at slightly different options to the traditional model.

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“The office in Hammersmith will be a solicitors’ practice and isn’t as a direct result of our ABS licence, but it certainly opens doors because people recognise we are a forward-thinking law firm.”

Stephensons opened a client-meeting facility in the City two months ago, based on feedback from potential customers based in London. Now the firm has followed that up by opening the office in West London.

Ms Harrison said: “We chose Hammersmith because it is well serviced by estate agents and we believe it can take another player in the conveyancing market.

“But we also do a lot of disciplinary, regulatory and fraud-type criminal work and our contacts in London have been telling us that if we had a presence in the city, we could link up. The other element is to have a commercial presence for our SME clients who have been saying a similar thing.”

The firm indicated at the start of the year that post-ABS approval, it would examine the potential of external investment for the long term goal of bringing in capital to fund expansion and growth.

Ms Harrison said that remained “on the agenda”, but that a partner had not been identified.

However, the firm has not held back with its ambitions to broaden its geographical reach, despite legal aid cuts hitting some of its core services and the tough market place around property.

She said: “Sometimes you have to take risks and yes, it looks expansionist, but we’ve wanted to do this for a long time and have seized the opportunity. We are not talking about a property commitment on the size and scale of other firms. It is a modest start and a foothold in the market.

“For us, external investment is not just about having the additional finances. If we take an investment partner we want them to bring additional skills to the table to make best use of that investment.”

The long-term plan is to continue to expand in London to establish the firm as a “truly national practice” offering a complete range of legal services.

Stephensons is the third largest provider of civil legal aid services to the Legal Services Commission, although it does not have a contract to handle legal aid work in London. Mrs Harrison said the firm will continue to have a “strong involvement” with its local communities, despite the challenges brought about by government cuts.

She added: “The whole market place is undergoing a transformation. We are committed to legal aid and will not walk away from it.

“Life gets harder and harder because the government have got it in for the legally aided sector. We’ve had to look very hard at how we do the work and how we process it, in order to stay in the market. If the government is insisting that they will only pay so much for it and it can only be done in a certain way, then it is up to us to respond to that – like any other client.

“This firm has always had a commitment to legal aid. Some of our offices serve really poor communities and we will hang on in there for as long as we possibly can, because the clients need us.”

Stephensons currently has around 420 staff across 10 offices and the new Hammersmith base opens next week.

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