North West start-up merges charity donations into its fees

A new firm has set up in the North West which wears its heart on its sleeve by committing to pay 2 per cent of income directly to charities. The lawyers behind Brunswicks, a new specialist firm in Birkenhead advising health and social care providers, have decided that they want to put ethics at the core of their practice. “We want to foster an environment where we take our responsibilities seriously and acknowledge that we are privileged to be among the higher-earning members of society,” comments Keith Lewin, formerly a partner at the Liverpool office of DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary. “We wanted to put something back in a very direct and measurable way,” he adds.

The three founding partners – Lewin, Andrew Dawson (also from DLA Piper) and Gareth Edwards, who founded Birkenhead firm Edwards Jones – have contractually committed to donating 2 per cent of the firm’s turnover as “a minimum” to charities and other causes. In a good year, the firm intends to pay as much as 4 per cent. So far it has made donations to Action on Elder Abuse and the Butterfly Project, a bereavement counselling service for children.

Lewin says that they set up the firm to give them intellectual freedom and challenging work where they could “have fun”. But he adds that they also believe they can make a difference “not only for clients, but also to better the lot of parts of society”.

Was it necessary to spell out the firm’s commitment to good causes in the firm’s constitution, as it has done? “As founding partners it’s a fundamental part of our business ethic, and for anybody who wants to be part of our organisation it will be clear and upfront what it is that we’re about,” replies Lewin.

Why not make a commitment to undertake pro bono work as opposed to giving hard cash? “We already do pro bono work, both lawyers and support staff, and we also do work that isn’t recognised formally through the Solicitors’ Pro Bono Group, where there are deserving individuals,” he says. “But we wanted to make a charitable donation separate and apart from that.”

The firm also takes a non-traditional approach to its pay structure. Profit is distributed so that 80 per cent goes towards a traditional lockstep structure and the other 20 per cent reflects partners’ contributions to the firm. On top of that, 4 per cent of each invoice is set aside to be paid to the partner who secured the client for the firm, irrespective of whether they worked on the matter or not. For non-partners, the 4 per cent will be placed into an account and paid to them when they become a partner.

The firm believes that its commitment to charitable work and its alternative structure marks it out from its contemporaries. Lewin reckons that, “to a greater or lesser extent”, the firm’s partners were regarded as being “slightly maverick” within their former firms. “If you’re part of a big organisation like DLA, you take on all sorts of baggage in terms of the firm’s cultural mores or expectations, which may not fit with your own work or personality,” he says. “Andrew and I saw at DLA that we were on different courses and we’d reached a crossroads, so we chose to get off and go down a different route.”