Ex City lawyers create groundbreaking law firm

Templebright 18 2013 News Article
Justyn McIlhinney (l) and Tim Summers (r)

Tim Summers, co-founder of law firm Temple Bright, writes…

We are ex City lawyers who feel that both clients and lawyers are frequently ill-served by the traditional law firm model. Many clients are unhappy with how such firms work and charge, but are hard pressed to find other options. Many lawyers are also unhappy, working under pressure for rewards (below equity partner) that are not commensurate. Temple Bright has an entirely different model.


I’m working in the new London office of our law firm, Temple Bright. We are based near Old Street in Shoreditch, which is a lively part of town, full of creative people. My day involves spreading the word about Temple Bright by every means available, and doing the plate-spinning 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. This removes 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 while charging on an open-ended time basis. Through our partner-only structure, we can offer clients better advice and more certainty on fees. Our lawyers, meanwhile, appreciate our very high professional standards combined with increased autonomy, a politics-free culture and, for many, higher earnings.

What led to our idea…

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 the usual salary of a solicitor on the lower half of the big firm ladder. At times my diary would be obliterated for months, which is inevitable on some deals, but as a salaried employee I felt little motivation to work in this way. With around five years of post-qualification experience, I was considering leaving the law.

I decided to try a smaller firm in Bristol. This was an unusual move for an ex City lawyer, but by this time my attention had switched to creative projects 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, provided in this intimate and accessible way. So I started to take my legal career more seriously again and to consider whether it might be possible to be creative while remaining within that sphere, using the skills and experience I had.

My co-founder Justyn McIlhinney and I initially conceived a City firm for SMEs. Its starting point would be four promises to clients, based on what we had learned was important to them but which traditional firms often failed to deliver. (The four promises remain on our website today.) We thought that keeping these promises would lead to a lot of business, so we needed a structure that would enable the firm to grow while continuing to keep them. We also wanted our firm to be attractive for lawyers, offering rewards proportionate to effort, more freedom and a relaxed culture while preserving the high standards of our City background.

We felt that the grievances of many clients and lawyers alike were rooted, ultimately, in the structure of the traditional firm. Fresh thinking in this area might enable a better service for such clients, and indeed a better workplace for lawyers. So instead of leaving the profession, we developed our plan to innovate within it. We wanted to make more fruitful 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.

Our moment of truth…

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

Taking the leap…

We were fortunate in that we had a loyal client base wanting to continue with us in our new firm. We also had the skills to get working, with revenue coming in, straight away. Therefore our immediate plan was simple – to carry on the succinct, commercial style of advising that we had developed, but without the elaborate traditional firm infrastructure.

The more innovative aspects of the firm came once the business was up and running. We had wanted to achieve two objectives – to keep our four promises to clients and to create an environment where lawyers would thrive. The model we adopted to achieve both aims is what we call a “chambers practice” – a solicitors’ firm structured like a barristers’ chambers. This involves senior lawyers who are self-employed like barristers in chambers, but within a single practice, intentionally developed for cohesion. The model depends on us being selective and our lawyers are all experienced specialists from leading firms. This has enabled us to build a strong brand in a short period.

In spite of our different structure, we have retained what we see as the best features of traditional firms. These include our selectivity, our development of a distinctive style of advising and our emphasis on working in teams (supported by high quality offices). These principles appeal both to clients and to the lawyers joining us. The latter generally come to us from large commercial firms where they have been partners or senior associates, or from in-house roles. Given the (perceived) risk involved in a move to self-employment, they prefer a highly cohesive firm with its own momentum, where they can expect a flow of work. Some who have joined us with no clients have seen this become irrelevant within weeks. Lawyers tend to be risk averse but once a candidate has spoken with me and Justyn, and other lawyers at the firm, they usually realise that there is little practical risk for them, while the upside is enormous.

The best and worst bits…

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

Having started in March 2010, by September 2012 we were a firm of 15 lawyers and won Bristol Law Society’s “Regional Law Firm of the Year” award, beating a number of leading traditional firms in Bristol. This was welcome recognition of our progress. Moreover the composition of our client base had developed, from an initial core of South West SMEs, in two particular directions. First, we were becoming popular with the region’s tech start-ups, who understood the impulse to innovate and disrupt. Secondly, we were starting to get attention from larger companies and especially their in-house lawyers, who are usually alumni of large traditional firms and immediately see the advantages of our approach. So by this time, while continuing our original entrepreneur focus, we were also acting for some PLCs.

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 atmosphere of the district. But it’s also accessible and right on the northern edge of the City, which we felt would help smooth the path for larger clients wishing to try a streamlined alternative to the City firms (and indeed for City lawyers considering joining us). We did not intend to limit ourselves to technology work in London, but hoped that our work in the tech sector would be the seed from which a broader practice would grow.

I moved back to London and was joined in Rivington Street by Sam Elworthy, who had confidently left a City firm to open the new Temple Bright office with me. Our starting position in London was quite unlike that in Bristol in 2010. We had only a couple of clients in the capital, and no wider network to speak of. So the initial period of business development was intense, involving networking events, social media, online writing, Meetup Groups, an entrepreneurs’ dining club and workshops and mentoring at tech incubators, with multiple follow-up coffees most days. We developed a systematic approach to work-winning from zero.

We are competing with City firms, many of whom are investing in London’s start-up scene by sponsoring incubators, hosting events, offering entrepreneurs discount packages and introducing them to contacts from the firm’s network. We did not want to compete for this work on price, or to advertise benefits beyond legal advice. Instead, we would listen to entrepreneurs and show interest in their business. When asked, we would tell them about the Temple Bright service, summed up in our four promises. We described this service as quite unlike that of large traditional firms and (although free of bells and whistles) the best choice for a young business, as well as most older ones. This pitch worked and instructions started to land.

We had first wanted to be a City firm for SMEs. Building our practice in London EC2 from a standing start, as a three year old firm new in town and pitted against established “name” firms, who are pulling out all the stops to get tech clients, has been the real test of our model and message. It is an ultra-competitive environment. However, the London office is growing and its clients now include not only start-ups and investors but also larger businesses which are household names. We’re advising on complex work of the kind usually handled by traditional City firms and we’re often across the table from such firms. In the tech sector our profile is especially strong (we’ve even appeared on Channel 4 News as Tech City pundits!), but we are also making great gains elsewhere and we are adding further practice areas.

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. But I much prefer this situation to how I began – employment in a big organisation, with the feeling of not being master of my own destiny. I’m certainly that now, but I also have a supportive team and structure around me, which greatly reduces stress. Both points are true for every other lawyer who joins us.

Best advice…

Go with your instincts. I have found that if something “feels” right, in spite of uncertainty, it will usually go well if I put in the work. But when something has felt wrong in spite of many arguments in its favour, and I have gone ahead with it, I have usually come to regret it.

Influences and inspiration…

We say we’re “a different law firm” and there isn’t really another one with the particular ingredients of Temple Bright. We’re an unusual hybrid of the established and the new. However, although no single firm has been a pre-eminent influence, we have learned from many of our peers. There are also sources of inspiration further afield. At risk of cliché, an obvious one is Apple – in that we aspire to a user-friendly, elegant style, and we have tended to narrow our focus while others are widening theirs. But I suspect the parallels end there. We can’t honestly claim to be that groundbreaking!

Tim Summers
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