A regional firm of accountants is planning to become an alternative business structure (ABS) and offer clients the full range of private client legal services.
Sussex-based Spofforths already has a legal function but becoming an ABS will allow it to improve the service currently provided and in time build a legal brand in its local market.
Spofforths is a 17-partner practice with five offices across Sussex; one of its senior partners, Mark Spofforth, is vice-president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. The Institute will shortly apply for the power to grant members probate rights, and has indicated that it might seek to become an ABS regulator  in future.
The legal function was set up in 2009 by Philip Lansberry, director of private client services, who is a member of both the Institute of Legal Executives and the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners. He is supported by a solicitor and three other staff.
Mr Lansberry told Legal Futures that becoming an ABS would initially “underpin what we do” in supporting other parts of the business, such as by allowing the firm to conduct reserved probate activities. Having to use external lawyers to do these “adds an amount of management time and costs”, he said.
But in time it could generate new clients by bringing them in for legal services and then cross-selling, he said. “I suspect the local community will discover us and we could be bringing in a lot more new clients in a few years’ time.” As Spofforths – which he said had a strong local brand – also employs chartered financial planners, the firm will move even closer to being a “one-stop shop” as an ABS. He also did not rule out expanding beyond traditional private client services.
Mr Lansberry – who said he has been surprised by how much clients turn to accountants for advice that he would have expected them to seek from a lawyer – is still considering whether the Solicitors Regulation Authority or Council for Licensed Conveyancers would be a better ABS regulator for the firm. There is “every possibility” that the application will be made in 2012.
He rejected the notion among some solicitors that accountants have lower ethical standards: “They are not lower standards at all and are toughening up all the time. You can’t put a cigarette paper between them.”
Before setting up its legal arm, Spofforths considered the risk of losing referrals from solicitors, but Mr Lansberry said their assessment was that these mainly came from commercial firms who were not bothered about the accountants writing wills or conducting probate.