Elle Mcdonald looks at how law firms can get their hands on government money to boost their businesses and provide coaching.
Law firms looking to grow their business, diversify into new areas of law or simply provide a better service to clients will find there are numerous government funding programmes available to help. They just have to know where to look.
The simple fact is, however, that although law firms are just as eligible as businesses in many other sectors, they seldom draw on many of the schemes available. GrowthAccelerator, for example (see case studies) is one of the main pots of money available to help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Yet the most recent data show that a relatively modest 309 law firms have applied.
So let us run through the main sources of funding and signpost where firms can go for further help.
Relocation grants are probably the most publicised of the big European funding options. Herbert Smith Freehills, Allen & Overy, Baker & McKenzie and Axiom have all received substantial assistance from the Northern Ireland government for relocating parts of their operations there. In total just over £6.5m in grants has been given to law firms to create 900 jobs in Belfast.
When it comes to European funding for SMEs, what funding is available – and to what value – will depend on how a region is designated by the European Commission. For example, regions classified as ‘developed’ have to meet more stringent qualifying criteria than those designated as ‘transitional’ or ‘less developed’ when applying for grants.
In the EU’s 2014-2020 plan, published last October, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, and most of west Wales are deemed ‘less developed’. Northern Ireland, along with Cumbria, Devon, East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, Lancashire, South Yorkshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire, Merseyside, Lincolnshire, Tees Valley and Durham have been deemed ‘transitional’.
It is also worth thinking laterally when it comes to European grants. The north-east of England has been given European funding from various pots to help it deliver the North East Strategic Economic Plan. The plan identifies a number of what it calls ‘smart specialisations’ – business sectors which will benefit from the €537.4m funding pot.
Key among these are industries including life, sciences and energy technologies – in short, businesses which have to protect their intellectual capital if they are to grow and provide the one million jobs the region wants to create by 2024. Law firms that can help these businesses by developing their expertise in patent law could find the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) supportive.
The GrowthAccelerator scheme, which includes the provision of one-to-one coaching, is specifically designed to help businesses work out what is holding them back, and to devise and execute a strategy for growth. It operates through some 3,000 registered business coaches.
Both Law Society Consulting and DG Legal have helped SME law firms to access funding through this scheme. In order to take part in GrowthAccelerator, a firm will have to invest some of its own money: a practice with 1-4 employees would pay £600; a firm with 5-49 employees £1,500; and a firm with 50-249 employees £3,000. For that, a firm can expect between two and 10 days of business coaching.
Inzar Haq of DG Legal, who is a GrowthAccelerator-approved coach, has a theory about why law firms have been slow to take up the opportunities offered by the scheme. ‘I think there are two reasons,’ he says. ‘First, a lot of firms are simply not aware of it. And second, smaller firms might think that it is going to take up too much of their time, which I think is a huge missed opportunity.
‘As long as you are a limited company or partnership with five PAYE employees, and have some trading history and an appetite for growth, then you are eligible. Appetite for growth is the key thing that [the scheme] is looking for.’
Haq stresses the importance of firms understanding precisely what it is the scheme actually provides. He said: ‘The consultant wouldn’t have a magic wand that would solve all the problems in a firm. The company and the staff have to get involved in order for [GrowthAccelerator] to bring the intended outcome.
CASE STUDY: Asad Mahmood, Solomon Law, Peterborough
Solomon Law is a high street practice based in Peterborough with six solicitors, two trainees and two support staff. Asad Mahmood says he applied for GrowthAccelerator because, while he knew his business needed to change in order to grow, he needed help to work through what exactly needed to be done.
‘I knew that putting Lexcel in place would make us more competitive, efficient and transparent, but growing the firm wasn’t simply about pursuing accreditation,’ he says. ‘I wanted a cultural overhaul.’
Mahmood began the coaching, paid for through the fund, in June 2014. He adds: ‘I knew change couldn’t happen overnight and that it would have to happen gradually. We are still in the transitional stage, but things are going at a pace which I think will take permanent hold.
‘We have implemented a Riliance compliance system and put in a state-of-the-art case management system. But it’s all done at a pace which means we can take our people with us, and not have change foisted upon them.’
Mahmood found the process of applying for the funding straightforward. He is keen to continue with the project and currently spends around two hours a week implementing the plan worked out with his coach.
‘We are re-examining one or two areas of practice as a result of the [coaching]. It has given us the a mindset to examine exactly what we are doing and how we are doing it – to see if it is effective and profitable.
‘We have been looking at personal injury and asking if we want to continue in that market. In conjunction with that, we have considered our staff and their career aspirations, and what they want to achieve, while also looking at the market and who our competitors are.
‘This process has really focused the mind. It is now part of how we do things and we will examine one or two other areas of law to see if we are going to continue with them or whether colleagues want to retrain into another area.’
Now that he has seen the benefit of grant funding for business development, Mahmood says he would not hesitate to seek grants in future.
‘We are a small practice and at this point in time there is no need for further investment. But if there was a need – most definitely.’
‘Remember, this is a coaching intervention, rather than a consulting intervention. What that means is that we don’t do the work for [the firm]. My role is effectively guidance, and showing the firm how they can potentially grow – discussing ideas and coming up with an action plan they can take forward.’
Haq also emphasises that GrowthAccelerator is not designed to provide an ‘instant fix’, but rather longer-term benefits. Law firms contacted by the Gazette that have used the scheme seem to agree (see below).
There are four strands to GrowthAccelerator: access to finance – for firms that need to work out a funding route; business development – for firms that need to work out how they can achieve growth; innovation – for firms that want to bring a specific product or service to market; and leadership. This latter option comes with a further matched funding voucher worth up to £2,000 to help a firm’s management develop the specific leadership skills it needs to take the firm forward.
GrowthAccelerator is administered at regional level through 31 LEPs. Accountancy firm Grant Thornton looks after the London scheme and is hosting a free-to-attend evening on 4 March at its Finsbury Square, London office for those looking at various funding options to grow their business.
For East Midlands law firms that might be interested in exploring the scheme, Financial Pulse is holding an evening to examine business models for growth at the St John’s Innovation Centre in Cambridge on 11 February.
Firms looking for information about introductory events in their area should contact their local LEP or visit the GrowthAccelerator site.
Law firms that believe their business would benefit from a more reliable, faster connection to the internet should consider the Broadband Connection Vouchers scheme offered as part of the government’s £100m SuperConnected Cities programme. As the name suggests, this allows SMEs located in one of 19 towns and cities of varying sizes – Belfast, Coventry and Newport are included – to apply for up to £3,000 to get them connected to high-speed internet.
The criteria for the grants vary slightly from place to place. In general, however, the scheme is worth considering if: connecting to superfast broadband would cost more than £100; a firm is prepared to sign for at least six months with one of the programme’s approved broadband suppliers; and the firm has not already received more than £120,000 in government grants over three years.
CASE STUDY: Tiernan Davis, Purcell Parker, Birmingham
Purcell Parker, a criminal practice based in Birmingham incorporated in December 2014, has five directors and 22 full-time employees, of whom 16 are fee-earners.
Tiernan Davis, a director at the firm, explains why it decided to access coaching through GrowthAccelerator: ‘Our firm was founded in 1979 and until recently we had eight partners, but three retired and we decided to become incorporated. I and four other directors acquired responsibility for managing the firm.
‘Given the changes to the duty tendering process, we needed to become Lexcel-accredited. I originally contacted DG Legal about helping us with that, but they told me about GrowthAccelerator and it was something that appealed to me.
‘We effectively had two coaches – one to get us through Lexcel and one to look at our business strategy and marketing. I have found both of them really helpful.’
In particular, the firm used the coaching to examine its options post-legal aid cuts. He adds: ‘We were pretty naive in many ways. I don’t like using that word but it is probably accurate. Our firm is a well-established criminal firm. We have got a good reputation in Birmingham, but these are difficult times for criminal legal aid lawyers.
‘The five directors felt that we couldn’t just sit back and wait for things to happen. We had to be proactive. Now, the worst-case scenario is we don’t get a solicitor contract or the fees and the second cut is going to hit us enormously. So we had to look forward and see if we can go in different directions or get a greater share of the market. Having a professional to speak to through this [thinking] process has been a huge help.
‘When times are difficult you can’t just sit back and rely on past reputation. You have to keep moving forward and look at promoting your business. This process has given us that focus.’
Davis is now considering applying for further funding to help upgrade the company’s IT. He says: ‘The courts are working towards full digital operation. For us that will mean a cost in terms of upgrading our IT. It is something I need to do more research on, but I am led to believe that there may well be grants available to us. If there are then we should take every opportunity.’
Firms looking to benefit from being able to Skype with clients, use cloud storage, or just send files faster to their transcription provider, can check if they are based in one of the 19 cities covered by the scheme at this website.
Lawyers who are interested and think they might be eligible will need to act fast, however. The current scheme closes at the end of March, and with a general election looming, there is no guarantee it will reopen with a fresh pot of cash.
For law firms based in rural areas, available funding is more piecemeal and some of it is dependent on how the area where the firm is based is designated at European level. The names of the bodies providing schemes do not always suggest they would be available to law practices. But there are opportunities. In the north-east of England, for instance, funding for installation of broadband to businesses in rural areas is provided via the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.
Legal aid practitioners struggling to afford training might consider registering their interest in a pilot programme to be run by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group. LAPG was given £145,000 by the government to fund development of an online training programme which will be delivered through smartphones. The pilot will begin this year.
From time to time there will be other funding available, depending on government priorities. The best way to stay informed and, crucially, be among the first applicants when new funding emerges is to register with a LEP. All the schemes looked at by the Gazette when researching this article allowed businesses to register to receive regular newsletters which contain updates on existing and new funding.
Haq also recommends registering with city and town councils, as they often provide additional grant funding to businesses.
He concludes: ‘Just be proactive. If you are looking for funding then there is probably something out there. It is just a case of following it through, but in my experience a firm does need to have someone proactively looking.’
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Elle Mcdonald is a freelance financial journalist