ABS two years on: cautiously optimistic

We are just at the second anniversary of licences being issued for alternative business structures (ABSs).  In the first year, about 40 licences were issued, and progress seemed slow. A year later, there are still only two licensing authorities, but there have been roughly another 200 new licences. The licences we expected for Abbey Protection, AIM-listed Quindell, Knights (backed by James Caan), and BT Law have all emerged.  Conveyancing Direct (connected to Connells estate agency and Skipton Building Society) and Jordans (the publisher) have gained licences, as has DAS Law (Bristol law firm acquired by the legal expenses insurer, itself part of insurance giant Munich Re).

The rate of ABS adoption is hotting up.  Or is it?

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ABS one year on: rushing headlong, slowly

Here we are, then, one year into alternative business structures (ABSs). For those who were expecting a revolution, the start to ABSs has been, well, muted. But was revolution ever a reasonable expectation? The statutory timetable envisages a licensing process that could take up to nine months. The SRA has also ensured that the timetable doesn’t start to run with the submission of a stage 1 application, so its nine-month timeline hasn’t been reached yet. The question is: does 36 ABS licences (ignoring the multiple licences issued to Irwin Mitchell) in the first year represent a good outcome, slow take-up by the market, or slow processing by the regulators? Has the whole thing – as many opponents of ABS would like us to believe – been a damp squib, an unnecessary and expensive addition to the regulatory terrain?

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External ownership and the forked tongue of ethics

Nine US general counsel have come to the conclusion, reported in Legal Futures, that there is no need for external ownership of law firms and “that the inevitable chipping away at the profession’s professionalism ultimately will do a disservice not just to the business clients we serve, but to all clients who seek the trusted and confidential advice of counsel”.

I would not presume to disagree with their judgement about their own clients. But I would seriously beg to differ with the general sentiment implicit in the conclusion that ‘non-lawyer’ (I still hate that expression) ownership will necessarily erode professionalism, undermine lawyer-client relationships, compromise confidentiality, and encourage unethical, profit-maximising behaviour. Continue reading