Concerns mount over Legal Services Act

THE APPOINTMENT of the first non-accountant as boss of a top-20 firm might be seen as an indicator that the structure of practices is set to move to a much more flexible model.

Yet Jonathan Fox’s promotion to managing partner at Saffrey Champness might prove to be the exception rather than the rule.

Fox is a business manager by trade; he held roles at law firm DLA Piper and St Philips Chambers, where he oversaw the largest merger seen at the Bar.

With his merger experience in law firms, plus new rules from October 2011 opening up the possibility of multi-disciplinary practices (MDPs) and alternative business structures (ABSs), is his appointment a sign that Saffreys is lining up a legal acquisition?

Fox says turning Saffreys into an MDP is not part of the firm’s current strategy.

“Our great strength is being independent. We’re open to ideas, but not interested in mergers,” said Fox.

Opening up firms’ structures to allow lawyers and other professionals into a partnership is a key plank of the Legal Services Act. However, there are still many details to be thrashed out that.

The ICAEW has voiced concerns over the risk of increasing the regulatory burden and cost to serve in an MDP or ABS. It is worried bringing a lawyer into a partnership could bring the firm under the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s gaze. The institute itself might come under the oversight of the Legal Services Board (LSB), as well as the FRC.

Time is running short to deal with these issues. But the LSB is confident that the aim of the Act – to open up legal services beyond lawyers – will be achieved.

The board is developing a memorandum of understanding with interested parties that will guide how they work together.

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