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Co-op and two small firms are first three ABSs

28 March 2012

The Co-op, a high street firm and a sole practitioner are the first three alternative business structures to have been authorised by the Solicitors Regulation Authority this morning.

The SRA started considering applications on 3 January and has received just under 180 ‘stage one’ expressions of interest and is now processing 60 ‘stage two’ forms.

Co-operative Legal Services was the first so-called new entrant to make public its interest in becoming an ABS even before the Legal Service Act became law.

The government and SRA have since been keen to emphasise that the new structure was not limited to non-lawyer-owned organisations or firms seeking external investment.

Part of the first trio of ABSs, alongside the Co-op, are three-partner firm John Welch and Stammers, based in Oxfordshire, and sole practitioner Michael Pope, in Sidcup, trading as Lawbridge.

Their inclusion will help reinforce the message that ABSs are a business-neutral vehicle suitable for all organisations interested in delivering legal services regardless of size or history.

Welcoming the announcement SRA chief executive Antony Townsend said the arrival of ABSs “should foster a more flexible and innovative market for legal services”.

He went on: “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”.

Townsend sought to provide further reassurance that the authorisation process would not allow rogue advisers into the market and would not put consumers at risk.

“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”, he said.

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

John Welch and Stammers has seven fee earners and eleven support staff and has been operating in Witney, the prime minister’s constituency in Oxfordshire, since 1932.

The firm said ABS status would allow it to continue and develop following the retirement of one solicitor partner in December 2011, which left two solicitor partners.

The firm’s practice manager for the past 12 years, Bernadette Summers, will be appointed as a non-lawyer managing partner.

Partner Kerry Joels said it has been the firm’s intention for a number of years to introduce Summers into the partnership and that “by becoming an ABS we can achieve this.”

Lawbridge Solicitors Ltd is an existing incorporated recognised body run by sole practitioner Michael Pope.

Pope’s wife Alison is currently the practice manager and will become a director of the firm “with a significant shareholding”.

Alison and Michael Pope said they were “very pleased to be one of the first firms to be authorised as an ABS”.

“It was always our intention to take advantage of ABS as a means of allowing joint ownership of the firm, and to use this as a platform to raise our profile and move forward to expand the firm”, they added.

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