Gunnercooke founder: ‘At Addleshaws and DLA I made a lot of money but it wasn’t pleasant’

Gunnercooke founder Darryl Cooke is an ABS fan but worries his firm will be stigmatised for turning its back on the LLP structure.

Darryl Cooke, who launched the Manchester-based corporate boutique Gunnercooke back in 2010, is passionate about the opportunities that the Legal Services Act (LSA) threw open to the market. But there is an unmistakable air of caution in his tone as we address his firm’s structure.

Nevertheless, he makes a convincing argument for his decision to opt out of the mainstream (he racked up several years as a senior member of the partnerships at Addleshaw Goddard, DLA Piper and Hill Dickinson) and launch an alternative legal services provider.

“When I was an equity partner in Addleshaws and DLA Piper I made a lot of money but it wasn’t a very pleasant environment to work in,” Cooke says, adding that the impetus to do things differently was not only about improving the client experience but also to “create a better environment for lawyers”.

Like many legal businesses to arise post-LSA, Gunnercooke is not an LLP. It does not have a traditional partnership structure and the lawyers do not bill by the hour.

Instead, having launched as a small LLP, it became an alternative business structure (ABS) in early 2012. Everything is charged on a fixed-fee basis, unless the client requests otherwise, and the 47 ‘partners’ are, more precisely, former partners from national firms.

They must have a minimum of 10 years PQE. Many are from large national firms. But whatever their background, these lawyers do not have a share of the equity and there is no partnership in the LLP sense of the word. Instead they are employed on a consultancy basis as retained senior lawyers in a model not unlike that rolled out by Keystone Law in 2002.

In fact, Gunnercooke founder Darryl Cooke recommends that new joiners have enough cash in the bank to sustain themselves financially for the first six months, although he says it rarely takes that long for lawyers to start generating a good income.

The firm’s lawyers are remunerated on a commission basis so in theory they can earn as much or as little as they like. However, they are measured against key performance indicators and receive additional rewards for referring clients to other practitioners in a bid to keep client work within the firm.

When it is put to Cooke that it’s surprising that pioneers of the emerging ABS market should shy away from confronting the misapprehensions and stigmas of the new business models, he agrees but remains keen to downplay the ‘dispersed’ or flexible nature of the firm.

“It’s a consultancy but we prefer not to look at it like that,” he says, adding with conflicting candour, “you don’t go into the office to do your best work.”

Well, some people do.

The evangelistic Cooke wastes no time in sharing his ambitious plans for his firm, recounting how it grew from 17 to 47 senior lawyers across the country last year and is aiming to reach 100 by the end of 2014, at which point he’d expect it to be turning over £10m.

It acts for clients such as Veolia, Busybees, Findel, Yodel and Crosslane Investments and has recently picked up new mandates for a large Yorkshire-based plc and a FTSE 250 retail group. With all businesses the proof is in the performance. Gunnercooke is currently turning over around £4m but is aiming to tap into the top 250 plcs, those with a revenue of between £10m and £100m.It also has its eye on international expansion.

Cooke doesn’t come across as disingenuous, although there’s a risk his apparent unwillingness to call a spade a spade could be perceived that way. Rather, it seems that the prevailing perception of how legal advice should be delivered is so deep-seated that even lawyers who have staked their livelihoods on breaking with archaic traditions such as Cooke are reluctant to whole-heartedly stand up and defend their departure from the old guard.

That said, Cooke is adamant his firm does things differently. He says that at Gunnercooke there are no timesheets, no beaurocracy, no internal meetings. The lawyers are expected to set themselves objectives and meet them but how they choose to do that is largely up to them.

It’s legal services but not as we know it. And it could just be your future.