First BSB ABS a ground-breaking collaboration between barristers and football agents

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(First published 11 August 2017 on the Thomson Reuters UK & Ireland Blog here)

In conversation with Simon Collingham, Director and Chairman of VII Law, Barrister at 2 Dr Johnson’s Buildings.

In April 2017 the Bar Standards Board (BSB) received authorisation to license Alternative Business Structures (ABSs). Among the first wave of ABSs were very different businesses, including a virtual set and a specialist financial services entity. However, the first ABS, VII Law, is perhaps the most ground-breaking of all.

A unique collaboration between barristers and football agents, VII Law is set up as a BSB-regulated entity to provide a holistic package of litigation and advocacy services for professional footballers, managers, and clubs. Services include agency, intermediary, and representation services, as well as coverage of all legal needs, including sponsorship, IP, family, and criminal law matters. Its three registered intermediaries, George Gros, Jerome Anderson, and Simon Collingham, fuse rich legal and commercial expertise with specialist football knowledge.

The entity is a unique example of ‘Brand Bar’ acting as an imprimatur to provide trust and reassurance to the provision of wider, previously unregulated services.

Background

Simon Collingham (Director and Chairman of VII Law, and barrister at 2 Dr Johnson’s Buildings) told us about the background to the business. In part a creative solution to declining legal aid rates and the imperative to diversify, the business came about through ‘a desire to form a litigation vehicle to keep more work in chambers’ as well as through his long-standing friendship with George Gros, a successful FA-registered intermediary with an extensive track record in the sport industry. The ABS structure enabled football agents and barristers to own the business together.

Collingham, with a successful previous career in the police, had formed a successful practice in chambers, in particular in Road Traffic. But, a mature entrant to the Bar, he was free of the traditional preconceptions of many barristers, and took the opportunity to work with others to forge a practice that represents the best of the creative, modern Bar. VII Law draws on the expertise of others within chambers, as well as Professor Ian Blackshaw, an internationally respected sports lawyer, academic, author, and Consultant to VII Law.

Fit with the traditional chambers model

Unlike many of the first-wave BSB ABSs, VII Law sits within a traditional chambers. This offers the benefit of a prestigious yet cost-efficient address, and of being able to draw on many of its barristers for both litigation and advisory services, while sitting as a separate entity. For 2 Dr Johnson’s Buildings, there is the potential for a new source of work.

Simon Collingham notes that the group were fortunate in being part of ‘a progressive set keen to embrace new initiatives’. 2 Dr Johnson’s Buildings Head of Chambers, Mark Love, is a Non-Executive Director of VII Law, and advises on its development, acting as a liaison point with the chambers.

Collingham notes how the specialist focus was a key selling point to chambers. This meant that ‘VII Law’s litigation services do not compete with chambers’ traditional client base. Likewise the advocacy work adds to and extends rather than cannibalises the work of chambers. Using chambers barristers for litigation and advocacy work aids barristers’ practice diversification.’

Client service

VII Law is not just about diversification. Collingham is keen to emphasise the unique nature of the high-end football client work. VII Law’s regulatory structure and state-of-the-art technology places bespoke, premier quality client service at the heart of the business model.

VII Law’s specialist focus educates the football world about the commonly-misunderstood rules on football transfers at both UK and EU level. VII Law are fast building up a network of relationships with other law firms – in Italy, Uruguay, Brazil, and others – with a similar appetite to bring transparency to the regulation of international transfers. Operating in a high-value world in which multiple parties are involved, and where agents and intermediaries are not subject to the structures and sanctions of other professions, the professional standing and ethical requirements of the Bar provides comfort and security to clients.

VII Law also works with other businesses offering innovative client-focused solutions. The Kohen Rapoport Group’s Legal Cost Finance is popular with VII Law’s high net worth client base.

Technology

Supporting VII Law’s unique business model and focus on client experience is technology. Case management software provides anytime, anywhere management of cases, recording of time and transparent billing for clients. Used by both the legal and football arms of the business, it also provides a uniquely transparent paper trail of the work of agents and intermediaries, ensuring clients a clear, professional service. Dictation software translates meetings, providing competitive advantage when dealing with international clients.

Uniqueness

Collingham notes that many previous barrister–non-lawyer businesses have been forged with professionals from other regulated professions, such as tax experts or accountants. VII Law’s offering is unique in bringing football agents – whose conduct is largely unregulated – under the Bar’s robust regulatory umbrella.

Although bringing unregulated professionals within the regulatory umbrella creates risks which had to be worked through in the helpful BSB application process, this regulation and the standards of conduct is a real advantage of the ABS structure, with client-winning potential. The high ethical standards of the legal profession enhance the integrity of the process for all clients involved in the transactions. Collingham notes that it was important to ensure this without stifling the creativity of the experienced intermediaries in the best possible arrangements for their clients. The BSB regulatory umbrella facilitates agents’ creativity, acting as a gold seal to a business model which will see VII Law representing its clients all the way through their career, whether the legal issues pertain to contracts and employment, to family law issues, criminal issues, privacy, or building a career in punditry or media after professional football.

Conclusion

VII Law showcases the Bar at its best and most creative. Whereas many of the ventures mooted for ABS status meld barristers’ expertise with that of other regulated professionals, VII is unique in embracing the new regulatory regime to work with professionals from an entirely different world, positioning itself to achieve competitive advantage. It will certainly be exciting to watch VII Law develop. As Collingham notes, VII Law ‘provides a flexible platform to develop in whatever shape or form we want’.

You can access the latest full issue of ‘Innovating the Bar’, featuring this article and more here.