SRA licences first three ABS Solicitors

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) today announced that it has licensed its first three alternative business structures (ABS)

Whilst many won’t be surprised that Co-operative Legal Services are one of the first the other two are much smaller firms John Welch and Stammers, and Lawbridge Solicitors Ltd.

An ABS is a business providing regulated reserved legal activities but which has either, or both, non-lawyer owners and managers. Traditionally law firms have had to be owned and managed only by lawyers. 
The SRA describe the firms involved as follows:
“Co-operative Legal Services is part of the Co-operative Group and was set up in 2006, but, until now, the range of services it could provide has been limited to personal injury claims; will writing; probate and estate administration; conveyancing and employment law. Co-operative Legal Services currently employs around 400 staff and is in the midst of a recruitment drive which will see at least 150 more employees join this year. ABS status will allow it to diversify into family law later this year as well as considering how else it can meet the needs of consumers.
John Welch and Stammers has seven fee earners and eleven support staff and has been operating in Witney, Oxfordshire since 1932.ABS status will enable the firm to continue and develop, as one solicitor partner retired in December 2011 leaving two solicitor partners and Bernadette Summers, who has been practice manager for the past 12 years, will be appointed as a non-lawyer managing partner. The firm is a general solicitors practice offering services in domestic and commercial conveyancing, family, personal injury, civil litigation and Wills and probate.

Lawbridge Solicitors Ltd is an existing incorporated recognised body, which has just one solicitor/fee earner, Michael Pope. His wife Alison, currently the practice manager, will become a director of the firm with a significant shareholding. The business is based in Sidcup, Kent, with a local client base, and offers a mix of employment work, litigation and commercial/corporate legal services."

Antony Townsend, SRA Chief Executive, said: "We’re delighted to announce the first ABS organisations. This represents a milestone we have been working towards for nearly two years."

"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."

"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."

"We’ve had to create a system of authorisation flexible enough to deal with a range of companies with hugely varying corporate structures, but that’s also robust enough to apply the same stringent suitability criteria by which traditional firms are judged.We make no apology for ensuring that the systems we have in place are thorough and in some cases, time-consuming."

Eddie Ryan, Managing Director of Co-operative Legal Services, said: "When the Legal Services Act was first drafted it was envisaged it would enable well-established consumer brands to enter the closed world of legal services. We believe the presence of The Co-operative’s trusted brand and values together with a combination of first class products and services will provide customers with greater accessibility to legal advice and better value for money. That is why we are committed to playing a leading role in this new era by offering straightforward value-for-money legal services, backed by an ethos of social responsibility and a level of protection that can be provided by a diverse, multi-billion pound organisation."

The SRA will continue to process the completed Stage 2 applications it has received from organisations across England and Wales. Around 60 Stage 2 forms have been submitted so far after initial interest from nearly 180 applicants.
John Wotton, President of the Law Society said:

“I would like to congratulate all three practices on being the first to be licensed under the new rules. The Co-operative Group is a well known brand on the high street, with a substantial profile and a strong reputation for ethical business. I’d like to welcome Co-operative Legal Services into the Law Society fold.  Lawbridge Solicitors and John Welch and Stammers are existing law firms who have taken an innovative step in adopting new ownership structures. 

“I look forward to working with all three practices, and assure them and those whose ABS applications are still being considered that the full range of Law Society support and services is open to them. 
“The Law Society welcomes this latest development in the legal services market, introducing as it does new ways of working, and increasing choice for consumers and corporate clients. Ownership structure and management are matters for individual firms, but the Law Society will continue to support all solicitors and all practices authorised or licensed by the SRA.”
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