Deference to the sanctity of the legal system has, rightly or wrongly, tended to obscure the fiscal reality which might eventually dictate the profession’s response to the spectre of multi-disciplinary practices. So when a refreshing and contentious voice, which eschews much of the quaint ethos of what it means to be a lawyer, enter the debate, it’s probably worth an extended airing.
To recap on his letter published in last month’s Journal, Andrew Thomson operates a sole practitioner offering bespoke legal services to the pub industry. As a parallel role as the legal director of a pub company, Phoenix Leisure, he has implemented a structure which, while not an MDP as such, provides a “one stop shop” offering financial and operational advice to the pub industry.
Located above a temporarily discussed coffee shop, his sparse office is testimony to a determination to minimise his overheads, a prudent approach he takes to its limites. “I have no administrative support whatsoever. Utilising an up-to-date computer system, I do all my own letters, accounts, marketing and advertising. In terms of the cost element, it’s about as efficient as you can get”.
His irreverent attitude to conventional wisdom extends to operating a system of fixed prices. “I give clients a fixed price which won’t be exceeded. In some purchases there might be a nightmarish title, sometimes it might be simple. It usually balances out. I have a gut feeling that a certain price will make a certain level of profit”. He also dismisses time-recording as “a waste of time”.
Whether 33-year-old Andrew Thomson’s methods are unconventional or he merely voices popular sentiments, his laissez faire approach to the more upstanding vision of being a solicitor includes a comparative indifference to the technicalities of the MDP debate. Nevertheless he is keen that the debate doesn’t focus exclusively on large firms.
“I don’t like the phrase MDP. Whilst I’m trained as a lawyer, all I’m really in business to do is earn money. I happen to have a legal background, but why shouldn’t I be allowed to develop in other spheres? Perhaps I’m one-dimensional, but I’m not really interested in all the technical, ethnic and professional issues. Technical problems relating to the Guarantee Fund, PII and conflict of interest should not and will not allow the tail to wag the dog.
“As MDPs develop in practice either through my model or Dundas & Wilson’s, so the profession will be bound to develop appropriate systems and controls. You cannot halt progress. The profession ought to have nothing to fear and should lead the way”.
By his own admission, his firm has skirted round the rules to form a “loose alliance” with financial and operational institutions, while complying with Law Society rules. He rejects the suggestion that there might be an inherent conflict in acting for clients who are buying or selling a pub while at the same time being a director for a company, which in a tenuous sense at least, could be viewed as a competitor.
“When I get a new client I explain that my position might make them uncomfortable. But as a lawyer confidentiality and ethics have always been drummed into me and are second nature. If you talk about Chinese walls, mine goes from the floor to the ceiling and is concreted in. What I can tell clients is that I know what they’re going through. In persuading people to use me to buy licensed premises there is always the temptation that you want them to go ahead just to earn those fees. It isn’t necessarily a lawyer’s place to tell them it’s a silly idea. Nor, for that matter, would it be if they were part of an MDP.
“But I view the client as a temporary business partner. We will run our eye over the premises and consider from a businessman’s point of view whether it will merely be a loss-making exercise. Equally I know how much a client ought to pay for the leasehold of a pub. As a responsible business we look at the longer term and won’t hesitate to tell a client if we assess it to be a bad arrangement”.
This, says Andrew Thomson, is the major advantage to the sort of service he can offer. He also accentuates the benefits to the client in terms of time saved. “People are used to being told to go and see a lawyer, then an accountant, who will in turn suggest going to the bank. Nobody is taking control. It shouldn’t be the new purchaser, who is probably inexperienced and naïve, who takes charge, there should be people, all in one place, who are demonstrably experts in the field”.
The argument levelled against this model is the absence of choice in selecting different service providers. “The client isn’t forced to use the other services; if they have their own accountants they can keep using them. But if I recommend a surveyor, for example, who knows the area well them it’s likely that an introduction through me will get the client a better deal.
“In most cases paying money to a lawyer is nothing but an expense, the same applies with accountants. The service we offer makes it an investment, not an expense. A service offering financial advice should offer a real focus on what the business will do, designed to save the client money, not be designed just to impress a banker”.
The absence of clutter in his office and quiet telephones ensures it comes as no surprise when he reveals that he has only ten clients. He refers to them as his “executive club”.
“I know each of them very well. If I can keep representing them well I won’t require to grow Macgregor Thomson into a stand-alone business with the requirements to bring in an assistant and administrative staff”.
His preferred analogy in assessing the health of his law firm is to turn to football parlance. In equating firms with Scottish clubs he, not surprisingly, opts to compare his firm to Livingston (the former Meadowbank Thistle are probably the most progressive club in the lower divisions, boasting an attractive new stadium and having recently clinched the Second Division championship).
For those anxious to avoid languishing in the Third Division he suggests the sort of specifically tailored service he offers could be essential to ensure the survival of the smaller Scottish firms, nominating the car industry as an area in need of focused legal service.
“I’ve been expecting firms to go out of business for some time. I’m constantly surprised there seems to be so much business in Scotland to feed all these law firms, then again for all that legal boundaries are constantly eroding there doesn’t seem to be a big enough pie of ‘blue chip’ legal activity to warrant an invasion by English firms. The big Scottish firms have got their act together well to keep that market”.
Andrew Thomson maintains that he doesn’t view this as a career for life and eventually hopes to pursue teaching or archaeology. His career up to this point has been relatively mainstream; a year with Clifford Chance in Paris as an interpreter cum translator was followed by a traineeship with Pagan Osborne in Fife. From there he spent five years at Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie where he first made representations in the licensing trade. A spell at James and George Collie in Aberdeen left him “fully rounded” for the eventual step of going it alone
He resents the restrictions placed on him as a sole practitioner that, for example, prevent him from doing security work for a bank, but seems to relish the freedom to take an agnostic approach to professional norms, citing “getting away from formal departments such as corporate, residential, commercial” as one of the major benefits to sole practice.
“Departments shouldn’t be a starting point, only an internal discipline. A client wants to know there is a lawyer who knows their particular business.
“No lawyer sells himself through the quality of his legal work. It’s to do with whether someone likes and trusts you from day one. They have to presume you know your job. Thereafter how good a job you do is important, but before that it’s not that different to selling Hoovers or double glazing”.
Despite flaunting his maverick tendencies – he recently took a stand at an exhibition at the SECC where he offered a bottle of whisky to challengers who beat him over a frame of pool – he can, despite insisting he’s “never bothered about legal minutiae”, discuss something resembling just that, namely the inadequacies of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976.
“It should be a priority of the new Parliament to make it a whole lot simpler. At the moment decisions on say a new licence are made by licensing boards simply on the basis of whether they want it or not. They can then choose a category under which to reject it. So legal discussions on meaning of over-provision are just plain boring. That is the real issue and making the whole system easier to implement. Different licensing boards operate different practices and procedures. This required constant liaison with the clerk of the particular licensing board to ascertain whether they accept photocopies, what are the lodging fees and their policy regarding regular extensions. The law is supposed to be a servant of business and these ridiculous variances from district to district make running a license business much more complicated than it ought to be. Law reform needs to be focused on helping the businessman”.
If the profession is right to be wary of change and resistant to those who drive it entirely for their own ends, it would nevertheless be foolhardy to ignore the sort of dynamic forces of which Andrew Thomson is probably just a small part.