Co-operative Legal Services and high street firms John Welch and Stammers, and Lawbridge Solicitors Ltd have today become the first alternative business structures (ABSs) licensed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
Co-operative Legal Services has been licensed to provide three reserved legal activities: litigation, conveyancing and probate. The licence includes strict conditions to ensure that The Co-operative Trust Corporation is not held out as being associated with the legal services arm or regulated by the SRA.
The licence says the trust corporation must not conduct any legal work or be held out to the public. It will only be used as a corporate trustee for clients of Co-operative Legal Services.
Co-operative Legal Services is already a £25m business employing 400 staff and is currently recruiting 150 more employees as it moves into family law later this year “as well as considering how else it can meet the needs of consumers”, said the SRA.
Eddie Ryan, managing director of Co-operative Legal Services, said: “We believe the presence of The Co-operative’s trusted brand and values, together with a combination of first class products and services will provide customers with greater accessibility to legal advice and better value for money.
“That is why we are committed to playing a leading role in this new era by offering straightforward value-for-money legal services, backed by an ethos of social responsibility and a level of protection that can be provided by a diverse, multi-billion pound organisation.”
The Co-op revealed that it will be providing its family law services on a fixed fee and will also be offering legal aid services. Christina Blacklaws, who is leading the work on the family law service, will be speaking at next month’s Legal Futures conference .
John Welch and Stammers is a long-standing generalist law firm in Witney, Oxfordshire with seven fee-earners and 11 support staff. It has been licensed to conduct all the reserved legal activities except for notarial work.
The SRA said ABS status will enable the firm to continue and develop, as one solicitor partner retired last December, leaving two solicitor partners and non-lawyer Bernadette Summers, who has been practice manager for the past 12 years and will become managing partner.
Kerry Joels, of John Welch and Stammers, said: “We have for a number of years wanted to introduce Berni Summers into the partnership as recognition of her major contribu
tion to the development and running of our firm and are delighted that by becoming an ABS we can achieve this.”
Lawbridge Solicitors Ltd, based in Sidcup, Kent, is an existing solo practice run by Michael Pope and handling employment work, litigation and commercial/corporate legal services. It too has been licensed to undertake all reserved activities except notarial work.
His wife, Alison, currently the practice manager, will become a director of the firm “with a significant shareholding”.
In a joint statement, they said: “We are very pleased to be one of the first firms to be authorised as an ABS. It was always our intention to take advantage of ABS as a means of allowing joint ownership of the firm, and to use this as a platform to raise our profile and move forward to expand the firm.”
SRA chief executive Antony Townsend said: “This represents a milestone we have been working towards for nearly two years. The arrival of ABS should foster a more flexible and innovative market for legal services. By stimulating competition and encouraging innovation, we should see consumers’ experiences enjoy a major boost.
“Some people may be surprised that there are two high street practices with a handful of staff among the first wave of ABS organisations that we’ve authorised. But we’ve always said that ABS offers options for all firms, not just large organisations.
“We’ve had to create a system of authorisation flexible enough to deal with a range of companies with hugely varying corporate structures, but that’s also robust enough to apply the same stringent suitability criteria by which traditional firms are judged.
“We make no apology for ensuring that the systems we have in place are thorough and in some cases, time-consuming.”
It is no surprise that two traditional law firms are among the first wave of ABSs given that the licensing process will have been more straightforward than for some of the more innovative ABSs that are in the pipeline.
Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly added: “This is a huge milestone for UK legal services and the future of ABSs. ABSs introduce more competition in the market place, delivering competitive pricing, higher standards of product and more choice for the consumer.
“Our UK legal services are unrivalled around the world and these changes will allow them to reach new heights, as solicitors’ firms develop new markets, seek external investment and join up with other businesses to offer different products to consumers and provide opportunities for growth.”
The SRA has received around 60 stage 2 applications to become ABSs, and a further 120 stage 1 expressions of interest.
Last October, Premier Property Lawyers became the first ABS  after it was granted a licence by the Council for Licensed Conveyancers.