Having Rich as part of the ownership means we can offer not just legal advice, but real structured help to companies, individuals and organizations that need context-specific non-legal advice.
UK-based ABS Proelium Law is a multidisciplinary practice that offers legal and business advice to companies, individuals and governmental agencies that seek to operate in complex, high-risk and hostile environments (Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq,…). The firm has two partners, Adrian Powell, who is a lawyer, and Richard Stephens, who is not.
Proelium is a Latin term for conflict, battle or combat. At Proelium Law, we combine legal expertise together with business and other non-legal expertise. My partner Richard and I have extensive experience in complex environments, and our multidisciplinary ABS structure allows us to combine that expertise with my legal expertise. It is an ideal platform for us.
We target clients, UK-based or not, who seek to operate in complex environments, or notably in the areas of security and defense and international development. We offer highly specialized legal as well as business expertise in the areas in which our clients seek to operate: police, intelligence, security, international development, defense industry,…
I was with the Royal Military Police from age 17 to 28. I was deployed extensively during that time: Bosnia three times, the first Gulf War, and Northern Ireland. When I left the army, I went to law school and became a solicitor. I worked as a partner in a criminal defense law firm and later for the Crown Prosecution Service. But my time in Bosnia had whetted my appetite for international work, so then I shifted to an in-house legal advisory role with a defense services company. In that role, I spent a lot of time in Iraq and then, later, in a different role, in Afghanistan. During those times, I learned the commercial aspects of the defense industry — private security companies, logistics companies — I learned how they work and the issues they struggle with. I also learned about the sharper end of counterterrorism and obtained an in-depth understanding of how the law affects overseas operations. That’s when I realized there is a real market for helping companies, individuals and governmental agencies in these areas. There is a lot of extraterritorial law today that affects people who are working overseas and that they need to understand — bribery acts, counterterrorist financing, sanctions … the pitfalls that people can fall into if they are not aware and thinking about them.
But I don’t have all the answers, which is what makes Richard so valuable. He has significant technical expertise in the areas of surveillance, reconnaissance, and problem solving in complex environments. He has a large and strong network — he served in the Royal Marines for 23 years and he has held senior management positions in companies that work in complex environments.
Let’s say, for example, that a client is seeking increased financial backing for its operations, and comes to us to understand how they can make themselves more attractive to potential investors. I can rattle out a list of legal requirements for the client to comply with. But that is not all that needs to be done — someone needs to look at the client’s management structures, how the client works in the given environment, and how it will be able to continue to work in the future. That is where Richard comes in. Richard also brings a range of technical skills, like how to track and trace someone who has absconded with a large amount of money.
Richard is not a lawyer and he cannot give legal advice. But, given his huge breadth and depth of experience, it would be naïve to think that he cannot give a legal perspective.
For clients that operate in complex environments, it is easier for them to come to us rather than to a law firm that does not have any particular knowledge or understanding of complex environments or the client’s particular industry. A traditional law firm would struggle to provide our unique combined and specialized expertise and services — their solution would probably be to throw people at a problem in order to come up with a solution. In contrast, we understand what the client is trying to achieve, and we understand the realities of the environment they operate in. From the client’s perspective, we “get it.”
Here is an example — private security companies have a lot of challenges: who they recruit, how they recruit, how they procure their equipment, how they move their equipment overseas, how they account for their equipment, how their companies are set up, what their management structures are, how they grow and merge with other companies,… Other law firms can deal with these things, but we have a better perception than most other firms do of how to deal with them in the specific context of a complex environment.
While for the moment most of our clients are based in the UK, we position ourselves internationally. We anticipate that we will develop clientele in the UAE and, eventually, in the United States, which is of course a big and attractive market.
Theoretically it would be possible for us to work without an ABS license, but that is not the way we wanted to go. We want to be able to offer a full package to our clients, and our ABS license permits us to that. That is, it allows us to work in the reserved areas, and notably in both civil and criminal litigation. So, for example, if a client runs afoul of counterterrorism laws or is subject to sanctions, we can represent them.
There are very few firms in the world that do what we do, the way that we do it and with the range of expertise that we have. The fact that we can offer clients a one-stop-shop is comforting for them. Much more so than clients needing to go to two, three or four places for the same mix of work. At the same time, defense, security and international development are in an enormous industry — that is, we are in an enormous industry.
We found the application process for our ABS license to be beneficial for us. It provided us with a structure to clearly identify and delineate what our objectives as a firm are, what our risks as a firm are, and how we will manage them. It helped us to clearly focus on what we are as a business.
More than that, our ABS structure brings us a great advantage and competitive edge in that it allows us to rely on much more than legal work to earn a living. So, for example, I can provide a 3-month training course on legal aspects of counterterrorism, without needing to get a special dispensation from the SRA or to set up set up my own consultancy with its own separate accounting, etc.
Further, our ABS structure allows us to work in a way that makes us happy. We can do a variety of different forms of work, and we can work outside the context of a traditional law firm. We enjoy working this way, and we don’t discount the importance of that.
A lot of other professions and skills are built on many years of studying and practical experience, not just the legal profession. Embracing those skills can only benefit the professions and make it more attractive to clients. Whilst hiring non lawyers as employees is an option, I believe you get better buy in and commitment if someone has a say in the management and leadership processes and feels like they own the process. I acknowledge that my perspective is probably different from a lawyer who has solely worked for law firms, but there is a great utility in taking on different thinking and approaches to business. I asked Rich to partner with me for a few reasons. I enjoyed working with him in the other environments we did. He isn’t the same type of personality that I am and we worked well managing staff and getting the best from them. There were strong synergies in our thinking about global business and he brought ideas that I hadn’t had, but also I showed him approaches he hadn’t thought of, somewhere in the middle we had new ideas and that can only be a good thing. Our combined networks together were strong when we looked at them and it made sense to bring them together. We know we can run large organizations, but both of us enjoy, and wanted, the challenge of creating our own, new organization where we had the final say on its direction — and it combined our years of experience. I believe that partnering with Rich rather than paying him for work as an employee, I will get the best from him. He owns the issues and the success and I think that’s a hugely important motivator. That’s not to say I am better than him at leadership or management, just that I felt he was better being an owner rather than employee. Remember, the firm isn’t offering legal advice on divorces or buying houses, its defense, security and development markets. They aren’t brand new legal areas, but having Rich as part of the ownerships means we can offer not just legal advice, but real structured help to companies, individuals and organizations that need context-specific non-legal advice.
Creating a multidisciplinary practice is not a straightforward matter. It took Richard and me some time to make the decision to create Proelium Law and then more time to complete the application process. Creating a multidisciplinary practice requires big picture thinking — thinking from the client’s perspective rather than the lawyer’s. I have spent many years not just in the legal industry — I believe that has made it easier for me to see the big picture and to understand issues from a client’s perspective. I suspect that many lawyers who have spent most of their careers in the legal industry alone struggle with that more than I do.
I understand that in the US there is resistance to ABS-type structures — to multidisciplinary practices and to allowing nonlawyers to own shares of law firms. I think that if lawyers had the experience of ABSs, they would understand their benefits and stop being so afraid of them. Putting it very simply, I think ABSs are a nicer way of doing business than traditional law firms. In the US, I wonder if there is ego involved — does that explain the resistance to ABS? Myself, I don’t have the type of ego where I am so protective of being a lawyer that I can’t allow myself to partner with a nonlawyer. We all still have to obey the ethical rules, regardless.
In my opinion, the legal profession that needs to think more expansively, and more internationally. It needs to think more about integrating with other professions and skills, lest the profession whither on the vine.
From my perspective, the world today is a very small place. Getting on a plane to the US or to Dubai is nothing for me. Proelium Law is industry facing, but our industry is worldwide.
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