Setting up a commercial firm on a virtual model

I founded Summerfield Browne Solicitors at the beginning of 2014. The firm specialises in advising on business and commercial law and we offer these services throughout England and Wales. We advise a wide range of companies from start-up to established international companies and from a diverse range of sectors. We now have offices in London, Birmingham, Cambridge, Oxford, Northampton and Market Harborough.

Why start a new firm?

I set up the new firm because I identified an under developed niche legal services model that I felt could be exploited in a very competitive legal services market. It is still very early days but the intended business model is a hybrid structure consisting of consultant solicitors who work remotely to service our clients at low overhead and also employed solicitors working at various strategic office locations. To keep the cost structure competitive it is anticipated that there will be significantly more consultant solicitors than employed solicitors. We use various strategies to source our staff including online marketing.

The business model

I am presently a sole practitioner but this will probably change if the practice continues to grow. The consultancy model we operate is based on a fee sharing structure. Consultants either undertake the provision of consultancy services as a sole trader or via a service company and we have specific consultancy agreements to deal with each situation. We offer an extremely competitive fee sharing arrangement. In the event that the consultant brings in the work, we pay them 75 per cent of the net fees and if we bring in the work and the consultant services the client, we pay the consultant 60 per cent of the net fees. As far as I am aware this is one of the most competitive fee sharing arrangements in the market place.

In relation to marketing and generating work, there appear to be two types of business model. The first model is based on marketing to consultants with a client following. Clearly when the consultant joins the practice then his clients become those of the practice. The second business model is based on marketing to prospective clients who require legal services and then use the consultants to service those clients. In this second business model the practice is effectively the vehicle for marketing and building the brand. We operate a hybrid business model but with a particular emphasis on the second business model namely the practice actively markets itself and is beginning to build a strong brand in the market place, and any enquiries that are generated by such marketing are evenly spread between our consultants.

I think it fair to say that we are a very progressive practice and since we aim to grow by organic growth, we have placed great emphasis on marketing and particularly marketing campaigns that have been derived from thinking “outside the box”. We are certainly benefiting from such cutting edge marketing initiatives and our monthly management accounts support this assessment.


I have been responsible for marketing strategy in various previous roles and therefore I felt suitably equipped to spearhead the marketing strategy of the new business by myself. I think that it is a very risky strategy to set up in business without having the personal skills set to be able to market and promote ones business – over reliance on third parties when it comes to marketing can be the death knell of any new business. I have developed all our marketing initiatives whether on line or otherwise and where appropriate I have involved technical experts to roll out the marketing concept. After concept development my role has been to project manage the development of the marketing concept.

In terms of formulating a general marketing strategy I think that it is very important for a new/ early stage business to ensure that there is immediate market penetration as opposed to developing longer term marketing initiatives such as brand recognition. Brand recognition will come in time but it is important to get those first instructions coming through the door as soon as possible.

Financial and business structure

When I set up the business I decided to use a private limited company structure. Clearly this has two distinct advantages the first being limited liability and the second being tax. The fact that I am a director and also a shareholder means that I can extract profits from the business in my capacity as a director of the company via PAYE and also as a shareholder of the company via dividends.

Since we are a commercial legal practice I decided to use a client account which I initially thought would have a significant impact on the cost of PI insurance but actually this has not been the case. I also thought that operating the business as a limited company might also have an impact on the cost of PI but again this does not appear to have been the case. I think for a practice that undertakes transactional corporate work on a regular basis it is unrealistic not to operate a client account and not having a client account could reduce the opportunities for undertaking transactional work.

I am a sole practitioner and therefore I have taken on the dual responsibilities of COFA and also COLP. In order to reduce the potential risks associated with taking on these dual responsibilities, and in particular the COFA responsibilities, I decided to employ a part time finance administrator and also to outsource the legal bookkeeping to a third party specialist legal bookkeeping supplier called Quill Pinpoint. This has worked fantastically well because in addition to ensuring that the bookkeeping is correct, Quill also ensure that there is compliance in relation to the Solicitors Accounts Rules which is very important given that we operate a client account. The software that Quill supplies means that it rejects any entries which would breach any of the Accounts Rules and it is therefore effectively self-regulating our accounting system on a daily basis to ensure accounting compliance. In addition to the accounting software there is also a time recording facility and the system also deals with anti-money laundering compliance which includes the facility to undertake personal searches for AML compliance purposes, which we use.

In addition to outsourcing the accounts, I have also appointed a third party auditor to audit the company which satisfies the SRA requirement in this respect. I also have my own accountant to advise on my own personal tax situation. I have quite literally surrounded myself with financial accountants/bookkeepers to ensure that we are SRA compliant from a COFA perspective. The one surprising aspect is that if you shop around it is possible to find very good quality financial support at a reasonable price.


I also decided to outsource our IT support to a third party supplier which is based in the same building as our administrative office. We have developed a very efficient and user friendly IT system which enables us to set new consultants up on the IT system that same day which means they are up and running immediately. The feedback we have had from our consultants is that it is a very user friendly system.

The overall emphasis of the practice is to keep the cost structure competitive so that the clients can benefit from a cost effective fee structure while still getting excellent service. In order to provide excellent service we only recruit highly experienced solicitors who have worked for leading law firms and/ or held very senior positions in law firms. As a consequence of this experience our solicitors should be able to add value to our client’s business which is a key quality standard for us going forward.

In order to increase our reach we have also opened various offices including Market Harborough, London, Birmingham, Cambridge, Oxford and Northampton – all by appointment only. The intention is to use serviced offices and pay for facilities such as meeting rooms on an “as and when” needed basis. This also contributes to our cost saving efficiencies which is important in a competitive service sector.

Christian Browne is a highly experienced corporate and commercial solicitor. He is Managing Director of Summerfield Browne Solicitors, a commercial practice specialising in business, commercial, corporate, employment, property, litigation, intellectual property and internet law. He is also a legal advisor with the Institute of Directors.

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