ABS of the Year Roundtable: Variety adds spice

ABSs arrived just two years ago but their impact on the profession is already deep. In a pre-Awards debate, our shortlisters discuss the rough and smooth of the transition

In association with


The Lawyer’s recent alternative business structure (ABS) roundtable gathered five pioneers of the liberalised UK legal market and found that if there is one thing they have in common it is their determination to prove professional legal representation and commercial acumen do not have to be mutually exclusive.


Just Costs Solicitors managing director Paul Shenton is not convinced you can use the ABS label to categorise the whole market.

“We’re just trying to run a business,” he says. “The only synergy is probably that we’re a bunch of people who aren’t ashamed to say we run a business that works in law.”

It seems odd to attach the concept of shame to firms choosing to be more corporate in their approach, but there were palpable murmurs of agreement as Shenton went on to qualify his point.

Let’s make money

“It’s no good being a great lawyer if we don’t make a profit,” he adds. “It’s frustrating to hear lawyers say ‘I’m a professional’ because I don’t see being a professional and being a business person as separate.”


Knights Solicitors chief executive officer David Beech agrees. His attitude to the ABS market stems from having established his own firm using the traditional equity partnership model and moving into the ABS market when he realised he did not like the way the business he had created operated.

Beech transformed the focus of the firm from legal aid to niche corporate work as it became clear this was a more sustainable, business-focused income stream.

“I got to know private equity and looked at the Legal Services Act and thought – this is an opportunity to do law as a real business,” he recalls, saying he started to understand how he could de-equitise the partnership and “run it as a proper business”.

Both Beech and Shenton strongly believe the partnership model holds firms back in this respect.

“You can’t do it with partnerships – they don’t know how to manage profit,” insists Beech. “They talk about the top line continually and never manage costs.”

“All the money in law firms gets distributed at the end of the year – there’s no capital,” argues Shenton. “That’s how law firms have collapsed, the partners take all the money. From a business perspective, to grow you have to invest back in the business.”

Change at the bar

The partnership model is arguably an archaic structure that can limit the extent to which more corporate principles can be enlisted. But many barristers’ chambers are even further removed from this commercial reality.


Of the pressure that various legislative measures have placed on the publicly funded bar, Richmond Chambers barrister Sarah Giddens says: “It’s taken a while for the bar to realise that we can’t say – okay, we just won’t do the work. We just need slightly different structures.”

She admits the traditional chambers set-up does not work well when it comes to direct access for the public, so when restrictions to working that way were lifted it made sense to innovate the model.

It quickly became apparent that a single clerk answering the phone was not going to be sufficient when handling direct access work with the public.

“We have all the technology for remote working, so overheads are really low,” she says.

Administrative infrastructure aside, Giddens says Richmond Chambers now has three barristers on a dual-capacity basis who can be employed part-time.

”We have four paralegals – one is doing a pupillage at the moment,” she adds. ”Two others are eligible for pupillage, so we’ve taken them on with a view to training them up.”

Her experience at the bar mirrors that of Shenton and Beech in private practice when it comes to the way lawyers deal with business.

“We had very little business prowess,” she admits. ”Until a few years ago the marketing strategy was to have a party for your instructing solicitors”.

That said, lawyers undoubtedly have their USPs.

Rachel Atkins

“The business world is new to us, but we’ve discovered we have skills as lawyers that the public are happy to pay for,” Giddens says.

More than a lawyer

For Schillings partner Rachel Atkins, coming to terms with regarding yourself as more than just a lawyer that has presented a challenge.

“We’re a reputation business, so that’s been a huge change in our mindset in the past year,” she says.

Scottish Power

Ascent Performance Group head of legal Myra Scott agrees.

“The mindset of commerciality is so important,” she says.

Scott says the ABS is a good vehicle for delivering services in a more commercial way, but adds that it is not what will ultimately drive those businesses forward.

“We’re coming up with package solutions if that’s what the client wants, but also legal solutions –whatever they need,” she says.

Atkins continues: “Now we’re risk, legal and cyber. We thought we’d take the decision on 31 March and by 1 May be off, but it’s taken two years to be firing on all cylinders.”

She says the firm did a huge amount of marketing to prepare for the change of mindset.

“We don’t talk to clients as lawyers, we talk about what we do and ask what the problem is that we can solve,” she says. “The work that’s really going to pay off is pre-empting how we can help people.”

Controlling the finances

Another thing that pays off is running a tight ship financially, and the further you get away from the partnership model, the easier this is to do.

“Most firms have overheads of 40 per cent, but they quote 30 per cent because they ignore all the people costs involved,” Beech says.

He says Knights has 150 fee-earners and 50 support staff.

“We’ll keep growing the number of fee-earners and we won’t recruit any more support staff if we can help it,” he confirms.

Beech argues there is also a level of objectivity with external investors that isn’t there when a firm is being funded by the partnership.

“The nice thing about private non-owner investors is you can have private ownership discussions about the business away from the employees,” he says. All this, he adds, is “normal business stuff – it’s just unusual in law firms”.


What is also unusual in law firms is, of course, the ability to invite outside investment. The private equity question has been central to discussions about the ABS market since Duke Street invested £50m in Parabis back in 2012. Since then it has been a route only a few ABSs have gone down.

Knights Solicitors is one. The firm attracted a lot of attention in 2012 when high-profile Dragon’s Den investor James Caan was revealed to be behind a substantial investment into the firm.

Despite this, Beech does not think it is going to become commonplace.

“Lawyers think it’s easy to get people to invest, but it’s really hard,” he says, “particularly when the assets walk out of the door every day.”

Shenton disagrees, arguing that ABS will facilitate private equity investment, “because it’s something they can understand and it becomes an investable business”.

He says that the exclusivity of law has been limiting for the profession on a number of levels.

“It’s not that I don’t think lawyers are good business people: they are,” he clarifies. ”It’s just that we’ve got too good and we’ve made it exclusive, so we said only lawyers could be in law and restricted access to other areas.

“ABS has also broken down barriers and opened doors to more women and ethnic minorities.”

Round the table: the representatives from the finalists of the ABS of the Year

Paul Shenton,  managing director, Just Costs 

David Beech chief executive officer, Knights Solicitors

Sarah Giddens,  barrister, Richmond Chambers

Rachel Atkins,  partner, Schillings

Myra Scott,  head of legal, Ascent Performance

Chris Jeffery, Head of Small Law, Thomson Reuters

Catrin Griffiths,  editor, The Lawyer

Hannah Gannagé-Stewart,  reporter, The Lawyer

ABS of the Year Roundtable, in association with Thomson Reuters

Representatives from the finalists of The Lawyer  ABS of the Year, discuss the impact that ABS have had on the legal market. Chris Jeffery, Head of Small Law, Thomson Reuters, Legal UK & Ireland, reports on the discussion

ABS of the Year Roundtable:

Paul Shenton, managing director, Just Costs 

David Beech, chief executive officer, Knights Solicitors

Sarah Giddens, barrister, Richmond Chambers

Rachel Atkins, partner, Schillings

Myra Scott, head of legal, Ascent Performance

Chris Jeffery, Head of Small Law, Thomson Reuters

Catrin Griffiths, editor, The Lawyer

Hannah Gannagé-Stewart, reporter, The Lawyer

It’s clear that the emergence of Alternative Business Structures are prompting culture change in the business of law and opening the doors to new kinds of legal business practitioners. Despite the myriad of business types that fall under the ABS banner, there are emerging core attitudes that appear to span them.

The term ‘ABS’ allows us to cut through the idea that practising the law and running a business are two different things. It offers scope to those that would prefer to be seen a business dealing with the law, rather than a lawyer dealing with a business.

It was clear from our discussion, that there is still some way to go for new business structures to overcome the perception that they are unregulated and unprofessional but there is no doubt that the model allows for increased specialisation and can smooth the path for legal businesses to innovate and grow.

The traditional model of equity partnership is increasingly seen as an outdated structure, which fails to promote and prioritise business skills, profitability and cost management. As a result there is diminished incentive to enter the business of law for professionals interesting in business.  The story of capital walking out the door is a familiar one: typically partners leave, taking their investment with them, which leaves less to re-invest for growth, leaving firms vulnerable to failure. In Alternative Business Structures, leaders tend to be more focused on growth and profitability than personal exit strategies.

Our Roundtable members agreed that another major positive of ABSs is that they allow for a wider range of people to reach board level positions. In equity partnerships, the need to have a legal qualifications barriers entry and a sense of exclusivity. The rise of Employed Tenancies on the other hand, equivalent to traditional pupilage, creates more opportunity for non-lawyers to establish their own business or rise to senior management

If, according to the views expressed at this roundtable, ABSs are notable for creating a more level playing field, for seeing a rise in ethnic minorities and women in legal businesses, for encouraging varied career paths and for making it easier for those that provide value to succeed, then there is already much to celebrate.  And, I’m sure, a lot more innovation to come from these diverse and growing businesses.