Amidst all the well-publicised woes affecting those working in criminal defence, Adam Makepeace believes his firm provides a financial model that offers some hope for the future of the profession.
The state of the criminal justice system is so utterly depressing, it is hard to avoid buying into the doom and gloom and becoming part of the problem. Yet it is our responsibility to find ways to be genuine about the good reasons for joining the ranks of criminal defence lawyers; but how?
There are problems relating to both succession in the ownership of existing practices and in attracting people to come into and/or stay working in criminal law. As someone who has spent the last 10 years telling young lawyers NOT to come into criminal defence, I seriously hope that I read this article and listen to what I have to say! We simply have to find ways to encourage young people to enter and stay in our sector. So, let’s first examine the reasons why the heat map of duty solicitors
recently published by the Law Society shows large swathes of the country (ie, Norfolk, Suffolk and Worcestershire) where there are no duty solicitors under the age of 35.
In rural areas, predominately small criminal practices with owners in their late 50s and above are unlikely to want to incur the costs of training people who probably won’t be successors in the ownership of the business. It is well documented that the millennial generation (and in criminal defence, the generation before that as well) is not in thrall to the idea of purchasing equity – so a succession crisis is growing. This is the perfectly rational consequence of people who should be ‘owners in waiting’ weighing meagre returns against the risks of:
•the capital cost of buying the business or, at the very least, the working capital cost of paying out the work in progress valuation to a retiring partner;
•the risk of changes in legal aid contracting that could render investment worthless in a heartbeat;
•increasing costs of digitalisation of practices; and
increasing costs/challenges of stricter regulation – GDPR being the latest layer of compliance with which to wrestle (see also Vicky Ling's column
In urban areas, attracting people who want to qualify into criminal law is not as hard. The number of training places is probably lower than the initial demand. For firms, why incur the costs of training someone, when bitter experience teaches that aspiring criminal solicitors all too quickly become aspiring regulatory lawyers for West End and City firms, when their desire to put down roots makes their earning potential a priority, which overwhelms their commitment to criminal law? So, in the round, we have a perfect storm of the leaders of our profession actively putting off younger generations, a declining number of training places, and hundreds of firms entering into terminal decline given the lack of any viable succession arrangements.
Encouraging the entrepreneurship of the past
To find solutions for the future of our sector, there are inevitably lessons from the past. While, over the years, there have been numerous articles suggesting that lawyers are resistant to change and a tad set in their ways, it is worth reflecting that many of them are in fact successful entrepreneurs who created businesses out of building a client base, developing viable – even thriving – practices, which were not built with the safety net of the duty solicitor scheme.
We should consider casting off traditional business marketing concerns about developing a unique brand and allow people to develop and thrive within their own corporate identities.
Within the boundaries of reality (I do understand that rural Suffolk is not teeming with gang crime!), we must find ways to try to encourage lawyers who might emulate those predecessors. Bearing in mind the modern risk/reward equation, we need to find ways to do this within existing practices, which will carry the regulatory burden and a share of the financial risk. We should consider casting off traditional business marketing concerns about developing a unique brand and allow people to develop and thrive within their own corporate identities. This is more than the consultancy model. While there will always be those who are satisfied to simply eat what they kill, this is about developing the sense of ownership/equity that inspired previous generations, creating the opportunity to share in something that is bigger than the fruits of their labour alone.
The Tuckers model
It is not easy. Margins are so tight all around, it is hard to find a financial model that is attractive for anybody, let alone everybody. But, conceptually, our model helps to provide a solution to the succession problem faced by many firms, including those with risk-conscious ‘owners in waiting’. It is a model that can hopefully inspire those young lawyers, who often have strong roots in their communities, to look beyond the horizon of consultancy, giving them the opportunity to have their ‘own firm’. There are constraints compared with equity ownership. But there is support in terms of compliance and reduction of financial risk, which means that entrepreneurs can concentrate on developing their client base, as opposed to dealing with Lexcel audits and file reviews (rarely a great strength of the entrepreneur in my experience!).
We are continuing to try to develop this model. Recently, prison law consultancy SL5 Legal joined the ranks of the brands that are trading under the regulatory umbrella of Tuckers Solicitors LLP. It has been proactive, both inside and outside the prison estate, in promoting the strengths of its lawyers, distinct from the existing Tuckers prison law offering. We have been able to achieve a similar kind of balance in helping manage the succession in practices such as Kent Defence (in the event of a partner leaving), albeit it has now joined forces with the former business of Robin Murray & Co, which are now trading and doing their own direct marketing under the Tuckers Kent brand.
Into this mix, we are delighted to have been able to add the brand of Alcindor Law. Twanieka Alcindor is a qualified barrister in Jamaica and has her eyes set on the English bar as well. However, she has already been successful in her charity work, notably in her endeavours with Lawyers in the Soup Kitchen. Fundamentally, what is so exciting about the future here is the ability to tap into the entrepreneurial spirit of the past.
How does it work in practice?
Those who know my work (both in print and in practice) will be familiar with my fervour in conceptualising our firm (most law firms for that matter) as two very distinct entities. We have two businesses: the ‘back office services’ business and the ‘legal services’ business. The former exists purely for the purposes of servicing the latter. That means it is the job of the back office business to ensure that our fee earners have the best support that (very little) money can buy. We want them to be able to focus on their role in representing and supporting our clients through what are invariably their very difficult circumstances.
The analogy I use when beating down the ‘Tesco law’ slur is that our back office more resembles a ‘cash and carry’. It is where people come to get what they need, so as to return to their local shops and sell their wares within their communities.
Reams of compliance rules and the frustrations of not having support to log in to this or that failing government portal – these are not things that we want our fee earners to worry about. A massive issue for criminal practitioners is not needing to be the one who answers the phone from the police station at three o'clock in the morning. If you want to, that’s fine but, unsurprisingly, the fact we have office-based staff dealing with these calls 24/7/365 is a popular service! The analogy I use when beating down the ‘Tesco law’ slur is that our back office more resembles a ‘cash and carry’. It is where people come to get what they need, so as to return to their local shops and sell their wares within their communities.
Our back office services are obviously a million miles from perfect. But the desire to improve all the time is important. Even if a firm grows to a size where it can afford more back office support, the experience of many fee earners remains that the actual delivery of legal services is an inconvenience to IT/HR/finance staff, not their raison d’être. Yet, from the point of view of an employee of Tuckers in Birmingham, a consultant in Taunton, or a ‘business within a business’ such as Alcindor Law in Brixton, there is very little that is different in the support received.
Quite clearly, this is not the answer to all the problems we face. It is not remotely feasible for many. But at least it is a positive message, and one where I am comfortable to look someone in the eye and tell them that there is a future for them in criminal defence. If we can inspire just some with this message, then maybe they can inspire others among their peers. It is certainly a model that has a better chance of success in sustaining criminal defence practice than telling aspiring young lawyers that they should turn their attentions elsewhere.
Tuckers has developed a free police station attendance app to help streamline processes for criminal practitioners. For videos on how to download, log in to and use the app, visit: www.tuckerssolicitors.com/case-ratio-links/. Apps for magistrates’ courts, the Crown Court and duty court attendances are in development.