Exclusive: High street consolidator buys three more firms

Roberts: Targeting £15m turnover

Echelon Law, an alternative business structure which specialises in buying small high street law firms with succession problems, is set to acquire three more, Legal Futures can report.

Andrew Roberts, director of Echelon, said the move would give the ABS a total of seven firms and a turnover of over £3m by the end of the year.

He said the pandemic had not “made much difference” to the “good, strong businesses” it was looking to buy, while the conveyancing market had been “fantastic”.

Echelon’s target firms have up to three partners and, once acquired, they keep their own names.

As we reported in February 2018 soon after Echelon’s launch, it targets “local hero” law firms, offering them back-office support, along with new IT and marketing to build the practices, bringing in senior lawyers to run them. Retiring partners are encouraged to keep in touch as ambassadors.

Mr Roberts said the three new firms which have signed heads of terms all specialised in residential conveyancing and wills. Echelon does not buy law firms that handle personal injury or legal aid work.

The law firms it currently owns are Dunning Anderson in Oxfordshire, Pooley & Co and the Hillman Partnership in Swindon and Clutton Cox in Bristol, a firm regulated by the Council for Licensed Conveyancers.

Mr Roberts said that when the pandemic hit, a month after Echelon bought Clutton Cox, he wondered if he might regret the decision to buy a firm of conveyancers, but since then there had been an “amazing bubble” in terms of demand.

The pandemic increased demand for family law, too, as people were forced to spend more time in their homes, and for probate services as the number of deaths rose.

“One of our firms had five Covid-related probates to deal with in one month in the spring.”

Mr Roberts said the three firms joining Echelon by the end of the year were all located in its target area of the M4 corridor “from Bristol to Beaconsfield”.

One was a sole practice and in another the remaining partner had not wanted to continue on her own.

Mr Roberts said Drew James, a private client specialist at Redkite Solicitors, had been recruited to work with Echelon’s law firms across the group.

He said that, regardless of the pandemic, Echelon would keep to its five-year plan of taking on two or three more firms every year until it achieved a total turnover of £15m every year and was “comfortably in” the top 200.

As Echelon got bigger, he said it would be able to take on larger firms with up to five partners.

Mr Roberts studied to be a lawyer, but instead of doing articles went into legal recruitment, eventually setting up his own firm at the turn of the millennium. Ten years later he had decided to specialise in law firm mergers, through merger broker Ampersand Legal.

He spoke at conferences about the succession problems of small law firms and found that he was approached by partners with succession problems, including some from small firms which were “good businesses but could not find a buyer”.

This inspired him to set up Echelon Law in 2017 with David Sedgwick, the former chief executive of national firm Clarke Willmott, who is a director.

Mr Sedgwick is a former director of Cubism Law, an ABS which operated on fee-sharing basis with consultant lawyers and went into administration in July last year.

Andrew Pena, founder of Cubism Law, was chairman of Echelon until March 2019, when he resigned.

Mr Roberts added that Echelon had rivals as consolidators, such as Star Legal, based in Bristol, and Metamorph Law.

“With 10,400 law firms in England and Wales, there are plenty to go around. We want to work with people we like, and we’ve turned down a couple of firms because we didn’t like the partners.”

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