Co-op Legal Services first to launch as an ABS

Co-operative Legal Services (CLS), Oxford-based John Welch and Stammers and Kent-based Lawbridge Solicitors have become the first alternative business structures (ABS) to be approved by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).

Eddie Ryan
Eddie Ryan

CLS has long been vocal about its ambitions to convert to an ABS. The retail giant established CLS in 2006 with a view to converting when the legislation was enacted. It officially announced its application to the SRA in December (7 December 2012).

CLS managing director Eddie Ryan said: “This move is a natural extension to the range of professional services we currently provide within The Co-operative, which includes banking, pharmacy and Funeralcare.

“We’re committed to playing a leading role in this new era by offering straightforward value-for-money expert legal services, backed by an ethos of social responsibility.”

The company has been on a hiring spree in anticipation of the conversion, looking to fill 150 new positions across the business as it expanded into the legal services market (12 January 2012).

Also approved is two partner firm, John Welch and Stammers. The SRA said ABS status will enable the high street firm to continue and develop, as one solicitor partner retired in December 2011 leaving two solicitor partners at the firm. The conversion will allow Bernadette Summers, who has been practice manager for the past 12 years, to be appointed as a non-lawyer managing partner.

Family run firm Lawbridge Solicitors, which has also been approved, is home to

one fee-earner, Michael Pope. As an ABS his wife Alison Pope, currently the practice manager, will become a director of the firm with a significant shareholding.

SRA chief executive Antony Townsend said: “This represents a milestone we’ve been working towards for nearly two years.

Antony Townsend
Antony Townsend

“The arrival of ABS should foster a more flexible and innovative market for legal services. By stimulating competition and encouraging innovation, we should see consumers’ experiences enjoy a major boost.”

He continued: “”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.”

The regulator said around 60 stage two forms have been submitted so far after initial interest from nearly 180 applicants.

However, the legal watchdog had come in for criticism for failing to move quickly enough to get ABS applicants approved.

Insurance firm Parabis was been forced to delay its ABS deal with private equity house Duke Street because the SRA had not approved its application by the set deadline (19 March 2012).

One source commented: ““The issue is that we don’t have a proper timetable. There’s a six-month statutory timescale, but it only starts when they decide. Some people think it starts when you put the application, but that isn’t the case.”

Townsend, however, said: “We make no apology for ensuring that the systems we have in place are thorough and in some cases, time-consuming.”