ABS update: council bids to “commercialise” legal services, as virtual firm eyes investment

Peter Watson with Hilary Meredith

A local authority in Surrey is eyeing up an alternative business structure (ABS) so it can “commercialise” its legal services in the wake of a partnership with another council coming to an end.

Reigate & Banstead Borough Council (R&B) has run a shared legal services partnership with Spelthorne Borough Council since 2014, but it finished at the end of March.

A paper before R&B’s executive last month said the challenges in delivering legal services were the recruitment and retention of qualified staff – especially given the proximity to London – increasing demand for specialised legal support, and managing increased costs.

A company model, which offered a “more attractive recruitment opportunity for staff”, and offered the potential to trade and generate additional income, could overcome these challenges.

By contrast, it said a traditional, wholly in-house service was unlikely to do so, based on previous experience, while the past three years had highlighted the difficulties of maintaining a “shared vision” in a shared service.

Gavin Handford, R&B’s acting head of legal, was given permission to put together a fully costed proposal for a commercial vehicle.

The objective is to become costs neutral within the first two years of operation, and then generate revenue in following years.

In other ABS news, ‘virtual’ or ‘dispersed’ commercial law firm McCarthy Denning has become an ABS as it seeks the “additional investment” it needs to grow to 50 lawyers by the end of 2017 and 100 lawyers by the end of 2018. It currently has 27.

The firm, which was established in 2013, is a partner-led business whose people work flexibly and remotely. New recruits are expected to have a client following of between £300,000 and £2m.

ABS status also allows non-lawyer chief executive Warren Wooldridge to become a director and shareholder alongside fellow co-founder Richard Beresford, the former McGuireWoods partner who is the firm’s chairman.

Mr Wooldridge said: “We have built solid foundations over the last three years and we are now looking forward to significantly ramping-up our market profile with our conversion to ABS status.”

Kings Court Trust – the private equity-invested estate administration firm regulated by the Council for Licensed Conveyancers – has struck a deal that to offer its services through leading wealth management business St James’s Place.

Christopher Jones, sales and marketing director of Kings Court Trust, said: “The estate administration service will help thousands of wealth managers provide a highly professional and comprehensive service to clients and their relatives.”

Finally, Peter Watson – who led national law firm Simpson Millar into its acquisition by AIM-listed Fairpoint Group and was its managing director of legal services – has joined fellow ABS Hilary Meredith Solicitors as its new chief executive. Ms Meredith, a personal injury lawyer known for her work on military claims, has become chairman.

Mr Watson joined Simpson Millar in 1992 and took it from a two-office firm highly dependent on one client and one work type to a multi-service top-75 national consumer law firm with 13 offices nationally.

Hilary Meredith Solicitors has offices in Wilmslow and London, along with five directors, four partners and four other fee-earners.

Ms Meredith said: “Over the last 12 months, we have enjoyed the highest profile in our history. To maintain our quality and standards but also to develop our expansion strategy, we needed strong leadership from within. Peter provides this.

“In a market place overrun with mergers and acquisitions, Hilary Meredith Solicitors has remained fiercely independent. We now enter very exciting times ahead in our plans to grow.”

Mr Watson added: “We will be implementing an expansion strategy based on increasing our market share in existing sectors and practice areas while also diversifying and exploring new opportunities. All the building blocks are in place for a period of sustained growth. It is a hugely exciting time to join the business.”

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