Top media firm and regional practice seeking external cash help take ABS total to over 100

SRA: application process criticised

A leading media law firm and a regional practice seeking minority external ownership to drive an acquisition strategy are among the latest alternative business structure (ABS) approvals as the number of licences issued by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) tops 100.

Including BT Law, announced yesterday, the SRA has now issued 103 licences as it seeks to speed up the approval process after criticism from the Legal Services Board and Office of Fair Trading.

High-profile reputation management firm Schillings is well known for its media clients and is moving increasingly towards protecting the reputations of multi-national conglomerates.

It has been granted two ABS licences – one for the main firm and one for its limited company Schillings Corporate Services, through which it acquired cyber-security provider Vigilante Bespoke last year.

Chief operating officer Christopher Mills said ABS provides a vehicle for the firm to snap up similar businesses which fit with the firm’s long-term direction. Schillings Corporate Services makes acquisitions easier, he added.

It will also enable the ongoing cultural shift to a firm run on more corporate lines, with Schillings already having a board which includes non-lawyers Mr Mills and finance director Paul Colebourne, as well as senior partner Keith Schilling and chief executive Rod Christie-Miller.

Mr Christie-Miller said: “We are delighted to have been granted our ABS licence, which takes us another step forward in our strategy of providing multi-disciplinary services to protect our clients’ privacy and reputations.

“The licence will enable us to fully integrate the cyber-security business that we bought last year and mean that we are able to welcome non-lawyer advisors into ownership of the business.”

Regional commercial firm Hacking Ashton has been on the acquisition trail since 2007 and after converting to a legal disciplinary practice (LDP) and making town planner Carl Copestake a partner, was required to become an ABS. But it is also looking for external investment.

Jim Hickey, one of 10 partners in the 75-employee, £3.5m revenue firm, said ABS status will enable all of its Staffordshire trading names to benefit from a larger infrastructure and wider coverage.

In recent years, Hacking Ashton LLP has merged with neighbours Coopers, Glandfield & Cruddas, Bailey Wain & Curzon, Wilkins & Thompson and Crick & Mardling. In 2007 it acquired planning firm John Rose Associates.

Mr Hickey said: “Our focus is to consolidate what we’ve done so far and then look for any more similar opportunities. We hope to bring in external investment, but we don’t plan to take it any further than 25% non-lawyer managed.

“What also drove this forward was that we didn’t think that smaller firms would be able to manage all the new compliance and regulatory requirements. ABS will allow the fee-earners to concentrate on the law.”

In Your Defence Ltd was granted ABS as the parent company of motoring law firm M23 Law Solicitors and criminal defence firm HS & Co. It has taken on all work from Hedley-Saunders & Co after founder Paul Hedley-Saunders opted to take a less prominent role.

The Pease Pottage-based three-lawyer firm is led by director, solicitor and head of litigation Geoffrey Wise and director Andrew Parker. The firm is not looking for external investment, said Mr Wise, but wanted the ABS structure to enable Mr Parker to help run the company.

Divorce and family law firm Caro Taylor Solicitors Ltd, based in Poole, was critical of the ABS process after starting its application in January 2012.

Office manager Jan van Boven said ABS status was more to enable him to become a director alongside solicitor Carolyn Taylor and “help take decisions”, than about future growth plans.

But he said difficulties around changing the firm’s structure from a sole practitioner to a limited company had held up the process.

He said: “It took too long. It was only after we complained to the SRA in December that the whole thing speeded up.”

Other ABS approvals included two-partner employment law specialists Astons Solicitors in Daventry, Northamptonshire, and personal injury firm Amanda Cunliffe Solicitors, based in Macclesfield, Cheshire.


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