The first not-for-profit criminal law firm – which opened its doors last month – has underlined its intention to generate surpluses like any other business; it will just distribute them differently.
The three-solicitor firm, Commons, based in Lambeth, south London, is arranged as a co-operative and set up as a community interest company. The firm has a criminal legal aid contract for police station and court work, and hopes to move into civil areas of work in due course.
The founding lawyers, Rhona Friedman – a co-founder of the Justice Alliance and a committee member of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association – Sashy Nathan and Ben Stuttard, all formerly of the human rights practice Bindmans, have a range of criminal defence expertise.
In the short term, the firm will focus on defence representation with outreach and project work “with a commitment to social justice”. The firm’s website observed that its lawyers “have experience of cases with an international element and cases of national significance”.
The website also said: “We measure our successes not in profit and shares but in the impact of our work on our clients, on the people and organisations we partner and the communities we engage with.
“We want to be at the forefront of using new technology and developing new ways of thinking about the justice system.”
Ms Friedman stressed to Legal Futures that the firm was not “anti surplus” and that not-for-profit did not mean the firm did not aim to work sustainably, build cash reserves, invest – for example, in IT – or expand its area of operations. Any surpluses might be distributed as “profit-related bonuses or profit-sharing amongst the staff”.
She continued: “There are different ways of dealing with a surplus… We can’t exist just paying ourselves our salary and meeting our costs because a very important part of how we set up is that we are a co-operative and it’s one of the one of the co-operative’s seven principles that you operate sustainably.
“We are not anti-surplus – that would be entirely silly and we certainly don’t seek to criticise small businesses, or even medium-size or large businesses, in the legal sector who are seeking to make a profit… That [would be] nutty.”
Ms Friedman said the firm would like to do civil work as well and that the criminal contract happened to be “the first one the window was open for”.
She said: “We would hope [to] go into other areas, but sensibly and not in a big rush… It’s about finding something we can add value to and also finding people who want to work in this slightly unusual way.”
She added: “When we are [in a position to recruit], we hope that people will be attracted to the unique hybrid nature of the firm and the ethos of it.”
In five years’ time Ms Friedman said she hoped the firm would be a beacon to others. “Hopefully we will have established this as a model that other people can adapt and learn from the things we have done well and the things we haven’t done quite so well.
“There might be more people operating like us in this way and, in terms of the firm itself, I would hope we have grown, but in a sustainable way and that we’ve kept true to our ideals.”
In the immediate future, the firm was working on a project to deliver training to the criminal defence community to identify vulnerabilities in the police station. Ms Friedman said Commons had received funding to design the project in its first week of existence. Next, “we will be seeking funding to deliver it”, she said.