Brief encounter: Barnetts

Barnetts Solicitors began life in 1987 as a local Southport firm. It has experienced all the associated difficulties which are well known to small firms in the North West, most notably a shrinking client base, particularly a reduction in the amount of local work, and the inability to compete with City firms. Firms have been faced with the question of how to survive in an increasingly competitive environment.

Some choose to merge or be gobbled up by the bigger firms, while others simply accept the inevitability of less work. Barnetts chose to try a radically different, and potentially more dangerous, route.

Eight years ago, practice manager Joe Whelan began an overhaul of the practice. The next few years were spent introducing a corporate structure, with a chief executive, a board of directors and just 15 solicitors. The majority of the firm's staff are now non-legal executives and clerks.

Admittedly, the chief executive was simply the old practice manager and much of the board was made up of partners, but it was more than simply a change in titles, rather, it was a complete restructuring of the idea of what a firm could and should be. The firm refocused to concentrate on a limited number of practice areas, moving away from the traditional concept of a small local firm as a generalist practice.

Over the next few weeks Barnetts will shut down its matrimonial department, leaving it focusing exclusively on property and personal injury (PI) work. Other practice areas to be shelved include welfare rights and commercial litigation. The result is that the firm now receives as little as 6 per cent of its instructions from local clients.

Of course, such a radical overhaul did not enjoy unanimous support. Indeed, a number of partners left the firm when the decision was made. However, Barnetts remains convinced that it is a successful model. It has in part been vindicated by the recent move of Thompsons, the PI and trade union practice, which is following suit in adopting a corporate structure (The Lawyer, 27 November 2000).

Barnetts itself has enjoyed dramatic growth, rising from 30 employees eight years ago to 130 today. And managing partner Richard Barnett believes this figure will double over the next two years. But in such a tight recruitment market, what incentives can the firm offer?

Barnetts regards itself as a processing centre and demands that solicitors give up their egos at the door. The partnership trail is a thing of the past, which is a view supported by Thompsons' chief executive officer Geoff Shears. When his firm revealed its decision to structure itself as a plc, Shears said: "The partnership model is inherently flawed in the context of the changing legal and business environment. Our new structure will give us devolved responsibility and greater efficiency and accountability."