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Sole practitioners will 'survive ABS Armageddon'

3 May 2011

Sole practitioners are better equipped than large and medium-sized firms to withstand the arrival of alternative business structures, the honorary secretary of the Sole Practitioners Group has said.

“In the nuclear winter following the ABS Armageddon it will be the sole practitioners who will still be there to put the interests of the client first,” Clive Sutton said.

Responding to coverage in Solicitors Journal of the Law Society vote endorsing the SRA’s bid to become a licensed ABS regulator, Sutton said the number of sole practitioners had remained roughly the same at around 4,400, even though it had declined as a percentage of the overall number of solicitors.

“Their numbers will remain steady on the basis that ABSs will create so many changes that many solicitors will wish to operate as sole practitioners, and the numbers may well increase,” Sutton said.

The solicitor from Lymington, Hampshire, added that sole practitioners had a distinctive service to offer.

“It is a personal individual service ranging from general work to niche practice, in which a direct relationship with the client is of the essence,” he said.

“In that it is, and will continue to be, completely different to that which the commercial provision of legal services will offer on the basis of streamlining and standardisation. Those of the public who want a professional service will remain with solicitors."

Sutton accepted the risk that ABSs could take clients away, saying that those who wanted a “commercialised and cheap service will no doubt go to commercial providers”.

But he was confident clients valued the service offered by solicitors. “For many people, on the basis that legal service issomething which is of importance to them and infrequently used by them, the value of a purely professional service over a commercial ‘professional’ service will be obvious,” he said.

Firms most under threat from ABSs, Sutton believes, were not sole practitioners, but large and medium-sized firms which would have to “change their attitude completely to be able to compete, or alternatively go under, against the competition of the huge budgets of those involved in selling legal services for commercial profit”.

Sutton was also keen to dispel impressions that the SPG had only latterly objected to the advent of ABSs. Law Society chief executive Des Hudson acknowledged on the evening of the ABS vote that the group had been consistent in its opposition from the early proposals to opening the legal services market to non-lawyer owned entities.

Hudson’s disapproval was aimed at what he viewed as a counterproductive move by the SPG to stop ABSs by challenging the procedure followed by the society and calling a society-wide vote.

Sutton maintained that within the Law Society “the real question of the commercial ownership of the provision of legal services has never been voted on or considered by the membership or the council in debate”.

He also said a vote would have cost each solicitor only 50 pence, “which surely is not a significant price to pay for each member being able to have a say in their own future”.

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Vulnerable Clients