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16-Aug-LF

Focus on…law firms

Continuing our regular feature focusing on some of the most popular small businesses, we take a closer look at law firms.

As part of new series, BE Offices focuses on the most popular small businesses. This week, we look at law firms.

What do they do?
Your basic law firm handles any legal aspect of life. This can cover a whole range of subjects from copyright law to redundancy packages and everything in between.

Many firms will specialise in areas like property law or business law but you can usually split the types of law firms into two groups based on their clients – commercial or individual.

Mainly, lawyers can be split into either solicitors or barristers – but recently there have been the creation of new roles such as paralegals. But as a rule of thumb, solicitors provide advice on legal matters, while barristers will represent someone in court.

Getting started
It can be a long and tough road just to be qualified as a solicitor – never mind starting your own law firm. You’ll need a degree – usually in law though you can focus on something else and then convert it into a law degree later. Or you could go through a work-based programme such as CILEx.

Once you’ve got your degree and a job, you’ll need to undergo vocational training covering the legal practice course, training contract and professional skills course. In total, all this can take around 7 years.

Then to set up your own firm, you’ll usually need at least a few more years’ experience working in the sector – the longer the better really. This will help you to not only build up experience but also to create a good reputation for yourself and build up some vital contacts, either as possible clients or for guidance.

As with most small businesses, to get started you’ll need to invest some money in a good website, a small team and offices.

Being a member of an industry body like The Law Society or one of the other many industry specific bodies can help provide you with the right credentials.

Industry challenges
The rise in ‘no win, no fee’ legal firms has not only given the industry a bad name but also has introduced a pricing structure into the industry that many firms are not happy with.

As part of this, some firms have adopted a fixed fee approach, instead of charging by the hour as they used to. This is a much riskier prospect for lawyers as they could end up working more hours than they initially billed for.

Brexit is also proving to be a headache for many legal firms as a large chunk of British law is actually European law. Working out what will happen post Brexit will be a tough challenge.

Overall, many law firms are suffering through difficult times, with some of the big names going under or merging. Cuts to public spending have hit legal firms hard with many clients in the public sector no longer able to pay for the levels of service they once enjoyed.

Personal challenges
Being a lawyer is a hard and often thankless task. Get the job done, and you are just doing your job. Fail and you are an overpriced hustler who just wants people’s money. This means it can be tough on those running legal firms personally.

Add into that long hours, strict deadlines and often novels worth of litigation and legal notes to look through and you start to realise that it’s not an easy ride.

Plus, many lawyers won’t earn the big salaries that people expect them to. For the first few years, many qualified lawyers earn very little, which can be especially tough if they’re chasing the work in big and experienced cities like London.

But, there is the personal satisfaction of helping someone who has had a tough time, been falsely accused or who simply needs a helping hand.

The industry facts
• Around 370,000 people are employed in legal services in the UK, according to the Law Society.
• 63% of these are solicitors or employed by solicitor firms.
• The total value to the UK economy is around £25 billion
• In 2014/15, the sector grew by £1.9 billion.
• The legal sector has grown by 3.3% per year over the last 10 years.
• The total value of pro bono (free) work undertaken by solicitors in private practice law firms was nearly £600m in 2015.
• There was a 9% increase in the number of training contracts offered in 2014/15 compared to the previous year.

Case study: Going global on a mid-sized budget
The challenge of many small and mid-sized law firms is making themselves stand out in the crowded market place. Sherrards Solicitors managed to make itself stand out by successfully expanding its services internationally.

The South-East based firm differentiated itself through its ability to connect clients to other lawyers overseas and its high level contacts in foreign governments and businesses thanks to its long list of contacts and multi-lingual specialists within its team.

This led to them being ‘Highly Commended’ for Exporting Legal Services at the Law Society’s Excellence Awards.

UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) now describes them as their ‘go to’ firm for clients requiring services on a range of commercial law in international markets.

They strengthened their international development by creating close links to the Law Society’s International Division, UKTI and the International Bar Association.

The firm now has practices that are focused on Russia and the CIS markets, as well as India, North America, China and Taiwan.

And success breeds success, with their reputation attracting the very best law graduates and solicitors.