James Knight, along with friend Charlie Stringer, established their commercial law firm, Keystone Law, in 2002. Keystone was the first and now the largest ‘dispersed law firm’ in the UK, employing 105 lawyers who have gained experience in larger, more traditional law firms and now work all over the country with a central administration office in London.
In this sense, Keystone is truly entrepreneurial. ‘I don’t see entrepreneurs as just small business owners; entrepreneurial means doing something different in an established market with the scope to really grow’. James notes that their business model is ‘unusual’ for the industry.
But this is far from a revolution. The firm operates in a tough industry, with strict regulations to conform to in order to act as a fully-compliant law firm. James calls this a ‘challenging’ aspect of setting up the firm; the model was ‘engineered with these regulations in mind.’
But is it truly non-disruptive? In a sense, ‘that is the way more conventional law firms might see us’ but it seems that it was not the aim. The business model is shaped by growing technologies and not just because of the need for quick communication. ‘It was never possible before because of the technology.’ James takes me back to the days of law firms using libraries, vast collections of books to be referred to for every clause of the law. Of course, those are all online now. But they are not a web company. Essentially it is a ‘normal service but without the overheads and these cost savings are passed on to the client.’ These differences have resulted in what is fast becoming the strongest brand in the industry. Without the infrastructure of a conventional law firm, along with high value services, it’s clear that there is an element of disruptive business modelling, even if it wasn’t the plan.
Keystone are responding to age-old images of the legal industry as being ‘intimidating and expensive’. There was definitely a ‘strong demand for a different service at a different cost,’ he says. Lots of small companies and entrepreneurs in the UK need sophisticated legal advice and high quality lawyers with experience. Traditionally, law services are marketed through recommendations and word of mouth. ‘It was, in fact, illegal for services to be advertised in the press. Now you have a new version of the Yellow Pages: the Internet.’ Entrepreneurs and startups are a key part of their clientele. ‘They want a consultative service that is more personal.’
Is this generation startup?‘We are moving from a corporate to a flexible culture’ when it comes to careers and ‘anything that’s been glamourised on TV is sure to be popular but you’ll struggle to see something others have missed if you’re coming from nowhere.’ James heavily emphasises the feedback you get in the very first stages of your business. It’s less about believing you can make it than actually receiving an enthusiastic response. ‘I never doubted my business could work because of the feedback we were getting – sentiment is the life force.’
Advice about law?
‘Don’t go to a lawyer to ask them to run your business, that’s your job – provide the skeleton, the lawyer can put the flesh on it.’ ‘They’re not there to make visions a reality.”And don’t get into disputes, get everything in writing’ (an email counts!). Nothing slows a business down like a dispute – it will cost you time and money.’