Our members come to us because of our expertise in the industry. They do not have to explain to us how the industry works, they do not have to explain the terminology, the production methods, the processes. We know what our members are and we can ask questions that other lawyers might not know to ask.
The British Printing Industries Federation (BPIF) is a trade association representing members of the UK’s print, printed packaging and graphic communications industry. The BPIF offers support and advice to its members in the areas of human resources, health, safety and environment, quality, marketing, sales and finance, and legal. BPIF’s in-house legal team is able to draw upon its experience in the industry sector to provide advice and support to the association’s members principally in employment and contract and commercial law. In liaising with the association’s other support services, BPIF Legal is able to provide this support in a holistic manner.
The BPIF is the principal trade association for the printing industry in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
When I started working for the association in 2001, the association did not have a legal advice function. The association’s specific purpose in employing me was to be able to offer a more attractive membership package by including legal support in the services offered to its members. The people who made the decision to employ me thought that they could charge for my services, and were disappointed to find that it was not that simple.
At that time, the regulations in place permitted trade associations to provide legal services to its members — not to anyone else — and on the condition that they were provided free of charge. So, as a legal function, I was a cost base rather than an income producing one.
But there was already discussion at that time to change the regulations in the UK to allow for alternative structures, which would allow us to charge for our legal services. The next 13 years of my time at BPIF included time spent preparing for those regulatory changes.
With the 2007 Legal Services Act, it finally became clear to us that in time we could form an alternative structure, and in that way the restrictions on charging a fee for our services would be lifted.
That was the only reason why we were interested in becoming an ABS — because we wanted to be able to charge our members fees for providing certain legal services to them.
The reason we wanted to be able to charge them fees was to be able to have the resources to expand the legal services that we could offer. We had about 1500 members, but only 2.5 lawyers. We can’t serve that number of companies with just that number of people, but in order to increase our resources we need to have an income.
It took us a long time to obtain our ABS license, but we finally got it: we first filed our application in February 2012, but we did not receive our license until August 2014. There are several reasons why it took so long — a principal reason was because of our structure. We are an “unincorporated body.” It was difficult for the SRA to understand our structure, and especially difficult for them to understand where the influence and control resides. For an incorporated body, that is easy — there is a Board of Directors and executive managers and shareholders. But for us, as a trade association you could argue that every single one of the 1500 members has influence and control. After a very long process with the SRA, we finally agreed with them that influence and control resided with our National Council, because it has the power to veto anything that the Executive Board decides. On that basis, I had to spend a lot of time trying to get the Managing Directors of the companies that were on the National Council to fill out long, tedious forms and have background checks. You can imagine how much time that took and how many emails I had to send begging for responses. And that work is never ending because every time a member of the National Council changes, I have to go through the whole process again with the new member.
The members of the BPIF are all small and medium size companies (SMEs). Most have from 20 to 40 employees; very few have more than 150 employees. We were very interested in a recent survey done by the UK’s Legal Services Board that showed that SMEs in particular have a huge unmet legal need. It estimated that one event of an SME not using a lawyer when it needed to costs the SME an average of £14,000. This is what we are trying to address in our own small way, with our members — this huge unmet need.
We are currently surveying our members to understand their current arrangements with lawyers. I suspect the responses will be the ones that are typically given for avoiding lawyers: they are too expensive, we don’t know what they will charge, they never come off the fence, we ask a simple question and we get a long memo back.
My message to our members is: you need to use lawyers, the lawyers of BPIF Legal are not just approachable, industry-specific lawyers, we are your own law firm, so use us.
We offer our members services in the areas most relevant to their day-to-day operations, and namely in commercial and employment law. Employment is especially important for SMEs since few of them have their own in-house HR functions. Our legal services are one of the core services that we offer to our members, together with services in HR, quality, health and safety, finance, and business development.
Our members come to us because of our expertise in the industry. They do not have to explain to us how the industry works, they do not have to explain the terminology, the production methods, the processes. We know what our members are and we can ask questions that other lawyers might not know to ask because we know frontwards and backwards what goes on in a printing company. In addition, the relationship we have with our members is different than the one a traditional law firm would have with them. For lack of a better word, the relationship is more intimate. Since they are members, they consider that they have some ownership of us, rather than coming to us cap in hand. And since we liaise with the other services in our organization, we have a much more rounded view of their businesses.
Our members get some legal assistance us for free, as part of their membership package, and other legal assistance from us for additional fees. The services they receive without additional cost depends upon their level of membership. The paid services are provided either on a retainer basis (X amount per month) or on a fixed fee basis. We don’t record our time.
Today we have 2.5 lawyers — one full time and one part-time employment law specialists and one full-time commercial law specialist. We all work from home, so technology is very important for us, and notably our case management system, which permits us to understand what is happening with each file and to cover for each other in case of absences. (In fact, all of our specialists — in HR, health and safety, and business development work, etc. from home as a cost-saving measure).
BPIF Legal is a limited company that is 100% owned by the association. The management board has just two members — myself and the CEO of the association.
I qualified as a lawyer at the age of 40, and I’ve seen life outside the law. I’ve heard of the concerns that ABSs will erode professionalism and ethics. In my opinion, those concerns are a reaction to a new way of doing things. That is the problem with lawyers — they are risk averse. Any change means risk, so they don’t like it. Of course you need robust regulation. But if you have that, what is the real threat to professionalism? In addition, companies are very keen to maintain the value of their brand — it is typically their biggest selling point and they will do everything they can to make sure their brand is not sullied by unethical behavior.
As regards conflicts of interest and other ethical matters, I think it is disingenuous of lawyers to argue that they don’t already have these same pressures on them. If they can handle them, then why can’t an alternative structure?
We are just a little minnow in all this. We have a very narrow focus — we just want to be able to charge our members for the legal services that we provide to them and in doing so be able to expand the services that we are able to provide. Our members are SMEs. There is very little difference between them and your average consumer. BPIF Legal offers a way for these SMEs to have their legal needs addressed in way that was not available to them before. With us, they can get a lawyer involved much earlier than they otherwise would, and this is very beneficial for them.
We are glad that we have obtained an ABS license. The licensing process was long and difficult, but now, within the bounds of the regulatory framework we are free to work in the manner we choose, with the clients we choose.
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