Exclusive: Leading financial services business lays out plan for ABS

Cullingworth: Looking for a core of people who are known in their fields

Financial and professional services group Punter Southall has laid out plans to expand its nascent consultancy law firm as it offers senior lawyers a new option to continue their careers.

Punter Southall Law (PSL), an alternative business structure, is another of the growing breed of fee-share law firms but is unique in being attached to an established business like this.

It is one of nine companies that form part of the Punter Southall Group, which has 520 staff in 10 offices around the UK servicing 1,500 corporate clients, 10,000 individual clients and £36bn of assets under influence.

The managing director is Simon Cullingworth, former managing partner of US firm Kobre & Kim’s London office, supported by among others director of development Nick Holt.

Mr Holt, co-founder of Weil Gotshal & Manges’ London office and one-time managing partner of K Legal, the law firm associated with KPMG, was latterly a senior headhunter focusing on high-level partner moves.

Group chief executive Jonathan Punter, also a non-executive director of PSL, told Legal Futures that the decision to create PSL was a response to client demand and also about knowing the right people to run it.

“We’ve been much more successful growing areas of the business where we know people,” he said. “We’ve been much less successful where we recruit people ‘cold’.”

Describing Punter Southall as “a consulting business and a relationship business primarily”, he stressed the importance of PSL providing not just legal advice but help to clients to actually implement it.

“A lot of lawyers have never had to implement their own advice,” he observed.

Mr Cullingworth said the initial intention had been to offer an option for senior practitioners who were “starting to be edged out of the magic and silver circle firms”.

However, the greater demand for flexibility because of Covid has “shaken the tree to people all the way down to their 30s”.

Mr Holt added that PSL was also “actively looking at offering a way out for small firms where the senior partner is scratching their head about succession”.

The overall aim, Mr Cullingworth explained, was to combine the best elements of a platform law firm – consultants keep at least 70% of what they bill, depending on the level of fees they generate – with the almost old-fashioned ethos and collegiality of a City firm.

Mr Punter said: “Moving from a culture of eat what you kill and fighting over who made the kill and into a collaborative culture [is what] at a certain time of life people prefer. It extends their careers.”

At the same time, Mr Cullingworth said he was “very keen that people don’t burn their own bridges”, so they could potentially keep working with their former firms in relation to particular clients who still wanted that connection.

PSL currently has four fee-earning senior lawyers – recent work includes acting for the Big Issue Invest Social Enterprise Investment Fund on its multi-million pound investment in Village Underground’s live performance venues in East London – and is looking initially to build to 20.

“If we can get 20 of the right people, it can grow from that,” Mr Cullingworth said. “It’s about getting a core of people who are known in their fields.”

While ideally lawyers would have some following, he said he expected the wider Punter Southall group to generate work for the lawyers too.

“We’re not aiming to be totally reliant on Punter Southall but there is a wide client base that is used to Punter Southall doing their work.”

For example, two PSL employment lawyers are working alongside Punter Southall Aspire, which provides employee benefits, workplace pensions and individual financial advice.

PSL will also build a team of more junior lawyers to support the consultants – one paralegal is going through the Solicitors Qualifying Exam – and draw on counsel too, as is currently happening with an IPO it is handling.

“The commercial Bar has realised that it’s an exceptionally good part of their training to go ‘in-house’ on a project basis,” said Mr Cullingworth.

Another part of the group working with PSL is Punter Southall Analytics, a data-driven business that helps corporate and trustee clients recover historical losses through mediation or litigation.

Managing director David Rankin said it was working on a lot of damages analytics in high-profile group actions – such as against credit card companies and truck manufacturers – as well as putting together potential groups of pension schemes itself for financial mis-selling claims.

He said law firms approaching litigation funders with cases often focused entirely on the quality of the legal argument rather than the return, but by collaborating with PSL, Punter Southall Analytics could provide both. PSL would not go on to actually do the legal work on the claim, however.

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