SRA confirms debut trio of licensed alternative business structures

The first three alternative business structures (ABSs) to be licensed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) have been confirmed today (March 28), as the reforms ushered in by the Legal Services Act continue to gather pace.

Co-operative Legal Services (CLS), Kent family practice Lawbridge Solicitors and Oxfordshire firm John Welch and Stammers are the first to secure approval from the regulator to practise as an ABS and take advantage of the liberalisation of the legal services market.

The ‘Tesco law’ reforms allow law firms to take external investment and be owned by non-lawyers for the first time, meaning companies can run their own legal arms.

The Co-operative is one of the best-known advocates of the reforms, with its legal arm offering services including personal injury claims, will writing and employment law. Its ABS conversion will allow it to offer services previously reserved for solicitors, with the licence covering “conduct of litigation, reserved instrument activities and probate.”

CLS is planning to offer a full range of consumer legal services in the near future and will move into family law later this year after last November making a trio of hires to launch the operation ahead of its ABS switch.

CLS managing director Eddie Ryan commented: “When the Legal Services Act was first drafted it was envisaged that its enactment would enable consumer brands to enter the closed world of legal services. This move is a natural extension to the range of professional services we currently provide within The Co-operative.”

John Welch and Stammers is a seven-lawyer firm based in Witney, Oxfordshire, which plans to take advantage of its ABS conversion by promoting its non-lawyer practice manager Bernadette Summers to managing partner.

Meanwhile the Sidcup-based Lawbridge has just one solicitor, Michael Pope, whose wife Alison, currently the practice manager, will now become a director of the firm and take a shareholding.

The Ministry of Justice designated the SRA as a licensing body in December last year, enabling it to begin accepting ABS applications on 3 January 2012. Other firms known to have applied include Irwin Mitchell, while a raft of other UK top 50 law firms have also expressed an interest in a conversion, including Hill Dickinson, Kennedys, DAC Beachcroft and Withers.

However, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, Asda and Waitrose have all confirmed that they have no current plans to branch out into legal services, despite The Co-op’s high-profile move into the market.

The SRA is continuing to process around 60 stage two ABS applications, after initial interest from almost 180 organisations.

SRA chief executive Antony Townsend commented: “The arrival of ABS should foster a more flexible and innovative market for legal services. Some people may be surprised that there are two high street practices with a handful of staff among the first wave of ABS organisations that we’ve authorised. But we’ve always said that ABS offers options for all firms, not just large organisations.”

Last year Leicester-based firm Premier Property Lawyers became the first ABS in the UK after securing a licence from the Council for Licensed Conveyancers.