Jenny Beck, Partner, Stephensons Solicitors LLP

We attract people who are innovators and out-of-the-box thinkers...we...retain them because there is no glass ceiling.

UK-based full service law firm Stephensons Solicitors LLP delivers services for individuals and businesses. The firm has over 470 staff based in ten offices across England and became an ABS in early 2013.

Stephensons became an ABS in order to bring a wider range of people and skills to the decision-making table. This ability has been key for the firm. Lawyers tend to see things in a certain way — by having different kinds of people around the partnership table we’ve been able to come up with some great ideas. Nothing says a traditional practice cannot employ innovative people. But there is something about ownership that makes people focus their minds in a different way. By appointing non-solicitor partners, the firm has been able to take the firm to a new level: it is the business ownership aspect of an ABS structure which keeps people engaged with the firm and working towards shared goals.

The types of people I am talking about are the ones who are needed in any successful business: people who understand finance, have the ability to market and can foresee future trends. If they are merely employees and not partners, they lack the ability to make critical decision at the core of the business.

Regardless of whether or not any specific individual actually becomes a partner, it is important that we have in place a structure which permits non-solicitors to become partners. The ABS structure empowers talent and gives individuals the opportunity to grow with the business and serve their entire careers with the firm — there is no need for someone to leave for career progression. We attract people who are innovators and out-of-the-box thinkers. But we also retain them because there is no glass ceiling.

It is this critical mix of different people who came up with the idea for Constant, the firm’s exclusive client loyalty reward scheme. The Constant hub provides free access to legal support and many client loyalty benefits. Constant is unique in its offering to clients who can access a helpline open 24-hours a day / 365 days a year for 30 minutes of free legal help. Constant includes additional extras relevant to a client’s legal needs, such as access to a network of counsellors and advice on managing the media. Finally, the Constant hub also offers access to a range of guides, DIY legal advice videos and additional benefits and one-time offers.

Our clients go on a lifelong journey with us. We can help them buy their first home, arrange a will, set up a trust or resolve a dispute with a neighbor. Constant provides a person with the assurance that their lawyer is ready to work with them at all times, delivering this message in a client-friendly way.

My personal area of interest is access to justice, and notably issues relating to children and domestic abuse. In 2012, Britain made changes to legal aid which resulted in a very large number of people losing their eligibility for free legal counsel for family law services. In light of these changes, finding affordable solutions became more critical than ever.

Our services at Stephensons are tailored to suit our customers’ needs and financial means. We are customer-up rather than law firm-down, which means:

  • Some of our services remain eligible for legal aid; those that are not are provided at a fixed price, so people need not fear the uncertainty of not knowing what the service will cost them (we do offer hourly rates if needed),
  • We offer modular services. The client can have us as much or as little involved as they would like, and involved at only at those points in the process when they want us to be involved. In this way our services can suit everyone’s pocket,
  • We offer extended services by phone, Skype, email, so that people who do not want to come into an office don’t need to. Whether it’s because they are simply busy or because they’ve been subjected to violence and prefer to remain in a place where they know they are safe,
  • We offer flexible hours, including evenings and weekends, and
  • We demystify the law by talking to clients in plain English.

In other words, we don’t just take over and tell the client to write a big cheque. Instead, we ask the client how they would like see us (face-to-face, phone, or skype), how they would like to communicate with us, and what elements of legal service they want from us (everything or just parts).

Technology is an important aspect of our services. Our clients have access to our Constant client portal, they can pay for our services online, and meet with us without leaving their homes.

We are also currently in the process of developing an online hub of free and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) guides and videos. Consumers can use this literature to decide whether they would like to buy one of our in-depth legal advice packages.

If so, they can do that online, without the need to speak with anyone if they do not want to. As they go through that pack, there may be instances when they decide that they would like help. In that case, they can click through to request a call. We’ll charge a fixed price for this counsel. As they work through the pack, they will be able to do many things for themselves and save money as a result. The client may eventually reach a part they consider particularly important or complex, and prefer for it to be dealt with a lawyer. In that case, they can upload all their materials, and we’ll take it from there, in most cases for a fixed price.

In the UK, law is still a cottage industry with many small firms around the country. Stephensons is large enough to remove the random element that you normally get with a cottage industry, and instead offer a reliable, specialized service on a national scale. At the same time, the service is not standardized or commoditized if the client does not want it to be. When you’ve had an accident, or you’ve lost your job, or your marriage has broken down — those are personal things, and in those situations many clients still want to deal with people. Stephensons has developed a process that both keeps costs down and gives people options, yet also includes a personal and personalized service.

It’s certainly possible to do all these things outside the structure of an ABS, but it is much more difficult. At the same time, ABS is just a structural tool. How successful it is depends on the business and its leaders.

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