Viv Du-Feu, Director of Legal Services, BMA Law

Our motivation for creating an ABS was to expand the types of work that we could offer to our members …and, if the ABS makes any money… it will all come back into the coffers of the BMA, for the benefit of the organization generally.

The British Medical Association is a trade association representing doctors and student doctors in the UK. ABS BMA Law offers support and advice to members of the BMA and their families in the areas of corporate and commercial, contracts (such as partnership agreements and doctor network and federation agreements), competition, regulatory, estate planning and probate, conveyancing, mediation, personal injury and immigration.

The BMA was created in 1832, becoming known as the BMA in 1855. In 1974 it was recognized as a trade union. That was when it began to vigorously campaign for doctors’ pay and improved working conditions, becoming at that time the recognized body responsible for the terms and conditions of doctors working in the UK. To be a member, you have to be a doctor or a student doctor — that is the only requirement. For the past couple of years membership has been relatively static at about 155,000, but very recently our membership has gone up to about 160,000 + due to an industrial dispute involving junior doctors in England.

In addition to being the Director of Legal Services for BMA Legal, I am also a partner in a commercial law firm (Capital Law based in Cardiff). I arrived at BMA Law in January 2014, initially as an interim. When I arrived, there were just three other lawyers working in what was then called BMA Law .This was a very limited service to members and operated  under a dispensation granted by the SRA which permitted them to work for members on the condition that they did not engage in any of the six reserved activities. The work they did was on a small scale, without any specific plan or strategy.

Very quickly upon my arrival, I had a discussion with the CEO of the BMA, and asked him why he wasn’t using the legal department more effectively. I told him that if the organization acquired an ABS license, it would result in a massive benefit for the membership as well as for the organization. The CEO was immediately interested, and, after some discussions about just how it would work, I received approval to proceed with an application to the SRA for an ABS license.

Our application procedure went very quickly — just seven months from the time of our initial conversations with the SRA to the receipt of our license.

The textbook motivation for creating an ABS is to be able to bring in external investment. That was not our motivation. BMA Law Ltd. is wholly owned by the BMA. Our motivation for creating an ABS was to expand the types of work that we could offer to our members — to go from a small list of unreserved activities to the full range of legal services that our members need. We saw that we had a captive audience: 155,000 members — if each has one family member, that’s 310,000 people. That is a lot of people and a lot of requirement for legal services. Why wouldn’t they want to come to their own professional body’s law firm, where they can get good quality advice at discounted rates? And, if the ABS makes any money (which it will), it will all come back into the coffers of the BMA, for the benefit of the organization generally.

We were fortunate to have both a CEO and a CFO who are commercially savvy and who have been hugely supportive.

Our model is that we have a core in-house team of three lawyers, plus a panel of external law firms. Our in-house team does the work that I consider to be core, notably competition and regulatory matters and partnership agreements. Our panel of external lawyers provides everything else: conveyancing, wills, probate, personal injury, litigation and mediation,…

A reason why we were able to launch so quickly is because prior to 2007, I was a partner at the international law firm Eversheds, and in that role I had developed a massive role of contacts. What I essentially did was call up my friends and former colleagues from around the country and say “I’m setting up an ABS, I need lawyers for X, Y and Z: do you want to play?” I got a great response as well as great support from them, and notably I got everyone to agree to uniform rates and menu prices (but I won’t say that part was easy).

The reason why we set up our dual in-house and external lawyer model is this:

On the one hand, we wanted to be sure that our “core” activities are done in-house and that our “core” expertise is located in-house. This is because the work they do is on the matters that keep our members awake at night. By having the lawyers that do that work in-house, I can keep my finger on the political pulse — I can feed into the association’s committees and management the types of things that the members are worried about. It’s a conduit for information and a virtuous circle.

On the other hand, it would require huge resources for us to bring in-house all the lawyers we would need to offer the full range of services to our members. It would be too expensive and not make commercial sense.

To look at it from the perspective of our external lawyers: everyone would like to have the BMA on their client roster — it’s a well-known and powerful brand and a top-class professional association. Further, law firms constantly have to spend time and money on marketing and business development. What we offer is to pipe work to them, with no marketing or business development costs. That is how, in exchange, we can obtain discounted rates — in fact, we can obtain quite large discounts. So, why wouldn’t we use the resources of these external firms, and reserve our in-house lawyers for the core work? The key to it working, however, is that you must have people that you know and trust — like-minded people that you know you can work with.

It can take enormous time and effort to vet the lawyers you want to work with. Our approach was very clear: “Here are our terms and conditions, we are not negotiating them. This is want we want from you, we are not negotiating it. This is how we work, and we’re not negotiating it.” We have a rigid model that everyone must sign up to. But, because I know these lawyers and have had past relationships with them, I gave them comfort by telling them that if at any time they have a problem, they must table it and we will all discuss how to resolve it to everyone’s mutual benefit, and we’ll amend our terms and conditions accordingly. So far, it’s working well.

The way our pricing works is this: we have a menu of fixed fees for various services, such as a partnership agreement, company formation, lease, deed of retirement,… Each has a fixed price. What usually happens is that the member needs a particular service, but with a few bells and whistles in addition. That additional work is priced at discounted hourly rates — normally 20 to 25% less than the firm’s standard rate.

I think that our members choose us over other law firms in part because we offer effective, quality work at a very fair rate. We are not always the cheapest, but our lawyers have a highly specialized knowledge of and experience with the specific legal needs of doctors — it is difficult if not impossible for other lawyers to match that knowledge and experience.

When I was a partner in a big commercial law firm and I first learned about the changes to the laws in England and Wales to permit ABSs, I was not in all together in favor of them. My initial reaction was that it could not work — that allowing non lawyers to own or manage law firms would create many problems, not the least of which were ethical ones. Over time, however, I recalibrated my thinking. It realized it was old-fashioned and that I was deluding myself. The profession, together with technology, has moved on. There are younger generations involved in the delivery of legal services. Today lawyers need to work in a way that is different, more accessible and savvy.

We got a lot of criticism when we created BMA Law — people wrote to the Law Society Gazette complaining, for example, that we were cannibalizing the profession and dumbing it down. My reaction to that was that I have a raft of members, and my responsibility is to look after them. I will do that by providing them with legal services. And if I do my job right, it should produce more work for the other lawyers out there because there is always someone on the other side.

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