Ex City lawyers create groundbreaking law firm

Tim Summers shares his Escape Story.

We are ex City lawyers who feel that both clients and lawyers are frequently ill served by the traditional firm model. Clients may pay too much, often for mediocre service. Many lawyers are unhappy, working under pressure for rewards (below equity partner) that are not commensurate. Temple Bright has a radically different model.

Currently…

I’m working in the new London office of our law firm, Temple Bright. We are based just north of the City in Shoreditch, a vibrant part of town which is full of lateral thinking, creative people. My day involves spreading the word about Temple Bright by every means available to me, and doing the juggling that comes with running a growing business. I’m a co-founder and I’m very passionate about our firm. We have a distinctive vision of how commercial law should be done, and we’ve developed an innovative firm model which makes this a reality.

Our model has been popular with both clients and lawyers. Clients get the promise of attention from a partner on all aspects (as we have no juniors) – so we avoid the common client experience of meeting the smoothly reassuring partner and then being handed over to a recent graduate who debates small points and learns on the job. Our fees are reduced as a result of cost-saving technology, and where possible they are fixed from the outset instead of being governed by estimates which are usually exceeded. Our lawyers, on the other hand, appreciate our informal culture combined with very high professional standards, increased autonomy without politics and for most, higher earnings than in traditional firms or in-house.

Before I escaped…

I started as a City lawyer in a top ten firm, before moving to Bristol and working for a leading big firm there. In both cases the work involved long hours and relatively small financial reward for those, like me at the time, who were still on the lower half of the big firm ladder. With around 5 years of post-qualification experience I was considering leaving the law.

As a last turn of the wheel I joined a smaller firm in Bristol. This was an unusual move for an ex City lawyer, but at this time I was more interested in creativity outside work. After moving firm, though, my priorities gradually changed. The smaller firm was an interesting environment. Working with entrepreneurs was stimulating and they were delighted to find advice of a “City” quality in this different context. So I started to take my legal career more seriously again, and to consider whether it was possible to be creative while remaining within that context, using the skills I had.

My co-founder Justyn and I initially conceived what would effectively be a City firm for smaller companies. Its starting point would be four simple promises, enshrining what clients most value in their lawyers and reversing their most common complaints. (You can now find these promises on the “how we work” page of our website.) It would have a structure which enabled these promises to be kept, and would also be brilliant for the lawyers – offering good rewards, more freedom and a relaxed culture while preserving the high standards of our City background. We saw that the grievances of clients and lawyers alike were attributable to some aspects of the traditional law firm model. It seemed relatively easy to provide a service which was better for such clients, and a workplace which was better for lawyers, with some fresh thinking and a smart use of technology.

So instead of opting to leave the profession to do something else entirely, we felt we could innovate within our own context. We wanted to make better use of the hard work we’d done in the law over many years. We wanted to create a place where other lawyers could come and do the same.

My moment of truth…

There was no single factor that precipitated our making the leap. It was just a feeling that our idea was a good one and we could make it work.

Planning for it…

We were fortunate in that we had an existing and loyal client base who wanted to continue using us in our new firm. We also had the skills to get working with cash coming in straight away. Initially, therefore, our strategy was simple – to carry on the very snappy, no nonsense style of advising that we’d developed while working with entrepreneurs, but without the full-blown traditional infrastructure. So on day one we signed up with secure online providers specialising in law firms, enabling us to work efficiently.

The more innovative aspects of the firm came once the business was up and running. We had wanted to achieve two objectives – keeping our four promises to clients and creating an environment where the lawyers would thrive. The model we adopted to achieve this was what we now call a “chambers practice” – a solicitors’ firm structured like a barristers’ chambers. This involves self-employed senior lawyers who have control over their own practice but work within a tight knit team, with shared clients. Because the lawyers have autonomy and are self-motivated, they do a fantastic job and stick to the price they quoted. They are all experienced specialists from leading firms, and are selected extremely carefully. This has enabled us to build a strong brand in a short period.

The chambers model has some resemblance to the firms which go by the name “virtual”, but only in that there’s a self-employed structure in which overheads are reduced through technology. We differ considerably from the typical virtual firm in that we work from offices and have a distinctive culture, real sector expertise and a strong client-facing message. Most of the virtual firms seem to us like loose collectives involving disparate lawyers and practice areas – which we are emphatically not.

So through our cohesion and focus we have retained what we see as the best qualities of the traditional law firm. This is reassuring for clients and for the lawyers joining us. The latter generally come straight from large commercial firms, where they have been senior associates or partners. Many do not have a client following when they join us but they soon flourish. This happens through work coming into the firm centrally and being shared around, combined with our lawyers’ own marketing individually and in teams. Clients find the model instantly attractive and we have had no difficulty breaking into a crowded market. Lawyers tend to be risk averse but once a candidate has spoken with me and Justyn, and the other lawyers at the firm, they usually realise that there is little practical risk for them – while the upside is enormous.

The worst and best bits…

The best thing is having a strong vision that one believes in, and seeing that come to fruition.

Having started in March 2010, by September 2012 we were up to 15 lawyers and won Bristol Law Society’s “Regional Law Firm of the Year” award, beating a number of leading traditional firms from the city. Also, our initial SME client base had developed in two directions. First, we were becoming very popular with the region’s tech startups, who understood the impulse to innovate and disrupt using technology. Secondly, we were starting to get attention from larger companies and particularly their in-house lawyers, who are often cynical escapees from traditional firms and immediately see the advantages of our approach. So by this time we were acting for some PLCs and public sector entities alongside our original entrepreneur focus.

All these factors influenced our decision to open a second office, in London, on our third birthday in March 2013. We chose Shoreditch because of the tech community and the general creative ethos of the area. However it’s also close to the City and so not too big a jump for larger clients wishing to try a streamlined alternative to the City firms, or indeed lawyers wanting to join us. Our leap of faith has paid off: the London office is growing fast and its clients now include a number of household names. We’re regularly advising on complex work of the kind usually handled by City firms and we’re habitually across the table from them. In the tech sector the firm’s profile is especially strong (we’ve even appeared on Channel 4 News as Tech City pundits!) but we have also made great gains in other sectors, in the capital and beyond. I think we’re the only new model, innovative firm to be competing successfully with the City for substantial work.

The worst thing is rarely being able fully to switch off and relax. This isn’t true for our lawyers generally but it’s true for me as a co-founder, and particularly since launching in London and building the business here. Having said that, I prefer this state of affairs to the alternative – employment in a big organisation and the feeling of not being master of one’s own destiny. I’m certainly master of my own destiny now, but I have a supportive team and structure around me which greatly reduces anxiety. The same is true for every other lawyer who joins us.

Best advice…

Go with your gut instincts. I’ve sometimes felt wrong about something but have rationalised intellectually and gone ahead, only to regret it later. Your gut is normally right and should be heeded.

Useful resources and information…

We’ve made most of it up as we’ve gone along, as there isn’t really another law firm which combines the particular ingredients of Temple Bright. We’re a mix of traditional and tech elements with a culture shaped by subversion of accepted wisdom! So I don’t think there’s any one particular resource that I could share as having been helpful. But there are many sources of inspiration which inform the spirit of the firm. The obvious one which is easy to understand is Apple – as we aspire to that user-friendly, elegant style in how we advise clients and in the materials we produce.

This article appeared on the Escape the City website on 13 June 2013.