ABS Carbon opens platform to own-brand start-ups

Burne: Only lawyers with clean record need apply

New-breed virtual firm Carbon Law Partners is offering groups of lawyers or overseas practices looking to start up under their own brand a platform to work from.

The off-the-shelf entities will operate under Carbon’s alternative business structure (ABS), with back office functions, regulation, and professional indemnity insurance supplied centrally.

Cardiff-based Carbon was founded in 2014 and is one of the firms commonly described as a ‘virtual’ or ‘dispersed’ practice, because its lawyers work remotely on their own books of business in a ‘hub and spoke’ model.

Partners pay a percentage of turnover – 30% up to £500,000 and on a diminishing sliding scale above that amount – to practise under its umbrella.

It currently has 32 partners, half of them female. In recent months, it has unveiled a share ownership scheme for its lawyers and staff, as well as a structure to help senior lawyers realise the economic value of their client base so they can retire.

Speaking to Legal Futures, founder and chief executive Michael Burne said the new venture, based on Carbon’s existing platform, was “for people that don’t have a passion to run a law firm and all that comes with it… who might want their own regulated law firm but don’t actually want to run one.”

Other virtual firms have offered the same: SPG Law in Liverpool was created last year by US class action firm Sanders Phillips Grossman with the help of Excello Law, while pioneering space law firm Alden Legal was set up initially using the Keystone Law platform.

Explaining who might take advantage of Carbon’s platform, former Allen & Overy solicitor Mr Burne said: “[It] may be an accountancy firm, it may be an international law firm thinking about starting in London, it may be a boutique of lawyers leaving a firm and wanting to go it alone.”

He added: “When we talk to people out in the marketplace, sometimes we find that that there is a sense that ‘I would like to join you with my team but I’d like to have my own brand’.

“The answer up to now has been pretty much ‘you either join us or you can do it for yourself’.

“What we are doing is saying: ‘You can have your brand. You’ll have to licence us to use your name, but that’s it – we can give you everything: back-office system, technology platform, professional indemnity insurance, handling client money for you, credit control, access to LexisNexis, and all of it under your own trading name’.”

Carbon currently does its own due diligence on each partner in the firm and that would also apply to the new entities.

Expanding on this, Mr Burne said: “We check them out before they join and, for example, we won’t take on anyone who has had any kind of run-in with the regulator – only people who have a clean regulatory history.”

The firm has a method of checking ongoing work by using external third parties to conduct random file reviews. He likened this practice to random drug testing for professional athletes.

So far there had been no claims on Carbon’s insurance and the premium had held steady, despite the business growing.

If partners or entities with the ABS required an layer of cover above £10m, Carbon would arrange it but they or the client would have to pay extra.

He concluded: “We are looking for those individuals [who] have got a clear business plan, they know which market they are in, they know what they want to do with their clients, and they want what we call ‘freedom within a framework’.

“They are used to having the back-office done for them but don’t really want to be involved in managing all of that as part of starting out on their own.

“What they want is to have a brand, do great work for their clients, and take the lion’s share of the income – and in our case with very little of the risk.

“We take the risk because we are the regulated law firm and we are the ones with the insurance. That’s almost a risk-free law firm start-up.”

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