Rapid and radical changes are facing Britain’s law firms.
Among those leading the way is a Sheffield firm that, despite being only a few months old, is already taking on the government and handling key cases involving occupational health, disability and discrimination.
Unity Law is the brainchild of former Wake Smith partner Chris Fry and is already notching up a series of “firsts” for the legal profession.
The company, based at the Fountain Precinct, has seized opportunities offered by the easing of restrictions on who can run a law firm and how they can be run.
Unity has become the first firm to become a limited company and the first to be controlled by a multi-disciplinary team that combines solicitors, barristers and business people.
It is also making major use of “no win, no fee” principles to help clients facing disability and discrimination who might previously been too frightened at the prospect of protracted legal proceedings and defendants employing expensive lawyers, to gain redress.
And, to cap it all, Unity Law is using combination of technology and management techniques from industry to its fee earners and others can be as effective and efficient in dealing with issues as they arise, wherever they may be.
“We brought in a barrister, Simon Mallett, who I have worked with since I was a trainee solicitor,” says Chris Fry.
“He is an expert on noise and vibration, who continues to have a practice at KBW Chambers in Leeds, but is usually here once a week. The market intelligence we get from him is great.
“Solicitors are often really great at the law, but managing a business can be a bit more hit and miss, so we brought in Mike Tod, who is head of the international business division at ATH mining, the Doncaster-based mining firm.
“The business is run almost as if we were in manufacturing. My job is to maintain production, to ensure the right cases are being taken on and that we develop in the right way. The management board’s job is to make sure we are working efficiently, the technology is working for us and to act as business adviser, ensuring we work as profitably as possible and that we are ‘future proof’.
I think that as we become bigger we will rely more on Mike’s skills to build the business in ways that someone who is a lawyer may not consider.”
Being a limited company with shareholders, has a number of advantages, says Chris Fry.
It gives Unity Law the scope to bring in additional shareholders, who might be venture capitalists or from industry, invest in other businesses, form joint ventures with or provide directors for other organisations, including charities and insurance companies, that might see a need to have a lawyer on the board.
It means the business will publish accounts.
“Partnerships don’t have to publish accounts, so no one knows what the behind-the- scene interests are, which can make it difficult to keep the goodwill of the staff in a down turn, when they don’t know whether everyone is taking the strain or savings are being made to increase the partners’ share of the profits,” explains Chris Fry. There are tax advantages, too.