High street defender beats a retreat

John Lymbury

Champion of the sole practitioner, John Lymbury has had enough of being a lone gun on the high street. Chris Fogarty finds out what has made him decide to shut up shop.

John Lymbury's office in the Nottingham suburb of Sherwood sits near the hideout of one of England's most famous criminals.

Robin Hood, who faced possible charges of possession of an offensive weapon, abduction of a maid and numerous armed robberies, could have kept Lymbury's small legal practice in business for years.

As it is, where Robin's band of merry men once frolicked about, there is now a busy road dominated by a funeral parlour, while John Lymbury & Co solicitors is all but dead and buried.

After 22 years on the high street, Lymbury, one of the most vocal defenders of the sole practitioner, has sold his practice. "Although I love the law as a concept, I am not duly happy about the future of high street practices," he declares.

In his darkened office – which has a sign on the wall exclaiming "Sue the bastard!" – Lymbury ticks off the woes of the sole practitioner. The list is long: increasing overheads, indemnity cover, staff pay, council rates, and reducing client fees due to cut-throat competition.

The former chair of the Sole Practitioners' Group (SPG) has had enough of life as a lone gun in the high street, although he insists he will remain in the law in a capacity he will not yet declare.

His story might sound uncomfortably familiar to the estimated 5,000 sole practitioners in England and Wales.

The son of a Newcastle barrister, Lymbury left school at 16, went straight into his articles and was admitted as a solicitor on 1 July 1971.

A year later he became a partner in a Nottingham firm specialising in crime, and went on to open a branch office for it in Sherwood in 1978.

After an amicable parting a year later, Lymbury set up on his own.

"I closed on Friday with one name on the door and opened on Monday with another," he recalls.

Up until two to three years ago professional life was particularly satisfying. Lymbury was working about 50 hours a week, having the odd half day on the golf course and enjoying a comfortable income. He gradually took on a small number of staff such as a qualified assistant, a legal cashier and a practice manager.

Then, two to three years ago, Lymbury sensed something was going wrong. "I became very perturbed at the cost of opening my front door," he says.

Along with increasing costs such as indemnity, the legal marketplace was changing, with legal insurance being built into more and more household policies.

"I saw this as a profession that was going to become conducted by computer correspondence," says Lymbury.

For a lawyer who says he is not a Luddite, but enjoys people wandering in off the street with their problems, such a future was unacceptable.

As if to hammer home the point, he interrupts the interview to complete the sale of his practice.

So is Lymbury right? Are the one-stop legal shop and the sole practitioner doomed?

Anecdotally, at least, it seems they are. Letters grumbling about their plight are a regular feature of legal journals and Law Society deputy president Robert Sayer has made a political career out of articulating their concerns and those of smaller firms.

Bristol sole practitioner David O'Hagan, who worked with Lymbury in the mid-1990s to revitalise the SPG, also fears for the sole practitioner in the high street. He says: "There are serious problems ahead and I'm afraid it [the sole practice] is going to be like the corner shop."

Yet cold statistics seem to mock Lymbury's fears. Since 1992, of the 644 private practices registered with the Law Society, 89.8 per cent have been set up by sole practitioners. Over the past decade, the number of sole practitioners has increased by 23.6 per cent, with sole practices now accounting for 42.2 per cent of all firms in the country.

Lymbury, though, says he is not worried about the history of the small high street firm, but its future. He argues that the experienced specialist who leaves a larger firm having built up a good reputation and client list to concentrate on a specialist area of law will not struggle. But the sole practitioner offering a wide range of services will.

According to Lymbury, this is in part because of the Solicitors Indemnity Fund (SIF). He talks of solicitors he knows who are well liked, but who make professional mistakes which cost the whole profession in indemnity claims.

"I didn't join this profession to be responsible for their mistakes," he says. "I don't mind being responsible for my problems, if I have any, but I don't want to be responsible for my competitors'."

City solicitors may be surprised that Lymbury is as enthusiastic as they are about scrapping SIF in favour of the open market.

But Lymbury vehemently rejects any suggestion from the City, or anywhere else, that it is sole practitioners who are the root cause of solicitors' appalling indemnity record. He says that while sole practitioner claims tend to be less than £15,000, other firms' claims can be in the millions.

However, SIF figures from 1 September 1991 to 1 September 1997 show that while sole practitioners made just over 20 per cent of claims by total value, they paid just under 10 per cent of the total SIF contribution.

After more than 20 years in practice, Lymbury has so far had one successful SIF claim – for £4,000 – against him. Although it was eight years ago he still pays a loading on his SIF payments, a fact about which he is less than impressed.

Lymbury is also unimpressed with Chancery Lane. He maintains that the Law Society sees sole practitioners as a liability to the profession's image and has little interest in backing them.

"I'm not angry, I'm not even disillusioned," he says of selling his practice. "My underlying negative feeling is that all the hard work that has been done by the SPG in the past three to four years, the reports that we prepared and the pleas that we have made to Chancery Lane to understand and support us, appear by and large to have been ignored or fallen on deaf ears. We [sole practitioners] tend to be tarred with the brush of the dishonest minority."

Articulate and with an accent that is more inner temple than East Midlands, Lymbury's location in Robin Hood country seems to have rubbed off on his attitude. The man whom colleagues describe as "ebullient and outgoing" appears genuinely concerned about clients who are often, as he puts it, simply seeking someone to chat to or somewhere to get warm.

Looking back on his career in Sherwood, he remarks: "Perhaps I have approached it in an optimistic way designed solely towards the care of my firm's clients and my community, and perhaps the changes that have taken place over the last two or three years have left that community care less viable. And perhaps the government and the profession have overlooked the most important person, the client."

Perhaps that is true – although you suspect this self-styled legal Robin Hood would not hesitate to launch a personal injury action if a modern-day Little John knocked him off his bridge.