Keystone Tops

The legal profession seemed to have its organizational models set in adamantine stone. Then came Keystone Law. Organized virtually, ...

The legal profession seemed to have its organizational models set in adamantine stone. Then came Keystone Law.
KeystoneTopsOrganized virtually, entrepreneurial and fast growing, Keystone is changing received wisdom on how the legal profession is run. Stuart Crainer talks to its founder, James Knight.

This is how a legal firm is organized. There is a large building with an impressive facade. It is in the city centre and has the full panoply of individual offices for the most senior lawyers. There are well-appointed meeting rooms with polished tables. There are trainee solicitors and an array of support staff ensuring that the lawyers are fed, watered and provided with working photocopiers. There are meetings of lawyers and meetings of support staff. The solicitors have billing targets to ensure that the mighty jurisprudent juggernaut keeps running, remains on the road – and stays solvent.

From Dickens’s Bleak House to Sir John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey, this is how people think of law firms, because this is the way law firms have always operated.

Until James Knight and Charles Stringer objected.

After qualifying as a solicitor in 1992, Knight worked in such an environment with Trowers & Hamilins in the city of London and then as a commercial solicitor in Hong Kong. When he returned to London, he worked primarily as a consultant for the BBC and a major entertainment company. “I realized that I never really liked being in a big company structure. To some extent, I was a reluctant lawyer; I just wanted to be doing business,” he recalls. More clients joined. What attracted them, he realized, was simple: a costeffective and personal service.

Of course, the personal element of legal service is a cornerstone of how the profession is traditionally organized. Lawyers have a personal, confidential relationship with their clients. The trouble has always been how to scale this up. The solution has been to add costly overheads – office space, trainees and support staff – and pressure lawyers to bill for as much of their time as possible.

With new technology available and a growing number of more entrepreneurial lawyers keen to work for themselves and enjoy an independent lifestyle, Knight saw an opportunity for a new organizational model for the legal profession. In 2002, Lawyers Direct was created – recently rebranded as Keystone Law. Knight set up the company with Charles Stringer, formerly head of sales at BBC Technology.

Virtual truths

The crucial difference between Keystone and a standard law firm is one of attitude: it is a law firm and an entrepreneurial business. It styles itself as “the entrepreneur’s law firm”.

Keystone is basically a virtual organization for the legal profession. Its lawyers are independent, called in to do the work when it arrives. “At Keystone we have removed most of the overhead normally associated with the law firm,” says Knight. “What remains is a team of motivated lawyers who have excelled at prestigious law firms and companies before joining us to work in a more personal, ongoing and client-focused way.”

Keystone’s 70 solicitors operate from their own satellite offices – usually at their homes – and from their clients’ offices. Originally the lawyers were linked simply by email correspondence. This was soon improved, thanks to the power of web browsers using broadband. Now, Keystone’s systems are hosted on a third-party server, and the lawyers’ computers are gateways to the firm’s system. The aim is seamlessness.

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