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Working under the ownership of others: being a professional under alternative business models

Project Description

In the UK the traditional model for offering legal services is through a professional partnership where partners are both working legal professionals and owners. Partners participate in governance and decision-making within the firm; hence control of the service offering is vested in the very professionals who are doing the work, ensuring an ethos of professional excellence and public service, cornerstones of professionalism, are kept front and centre. This model was seen to keep both charlatans and those whose only goal was to make money out of the market, protecting the public.

Following upon the Clementi Review the legal profession in the UK was re-regulated, manifest in the Legal Services Act 2007. This opened the way for “alternative business structures” (ABS) where ownership and investment in law firms by non-lawyer third parties allowed for both stock market listed firms (where ownership is held by shareholders) and ownership by other professionals, such as accountants.

With a decade having passed since ABS was introduced as a regulated concept it is apposite to consider some of the questions that raises. One important element of this relates to the experience and motivation of the very professionals who work within an ABS structure. Under the traditional partnership model an underlying logic was that junior lawyers offered their labour to other lawyers (through a law firm structure) in order to gain the necessary experience, and client connections, that ultimately enabled her or him to advance to partner either within that firm or another, or to strike out as a sole practitioner. Becoming a partner was considered the ultimate mark of success – an internal and external sign of having “made it”. However, with the introduction of the ABS, and in particular within an ABS structure where ownership is vested in third parties, the career logics become challenged. Partnership as traditionally understood may not be available. Indeed, in some structures, partnership may be reserved to other professional groups (such as accountants) with the lawyer in a permanently subordinated role. This begs a series of questions as regards the ABS and the lawyers within it which the proposed research will seek to address:

1. In the ABS, how are:
1.1 Career paths and incentives re-expressed?
1.2 Decisions made (inclusive or exclusive of the professionals)?
1.3 Professionals are socialised into the firm (and what expectations are created and managed)?
2. By extension:
2.1 How do professionals, and senior professionals in particular, deal with the institutional complexities that arise in the ABS?
2.2 How are professional logics confirmed, challenged, replaced or hybridized?
2.3 How do professionals identify with (a) their profession and (b) the firm?
3. Are the answers to these questions different depending on the structure of the ABS e.g:
3.1 Where ownership manifests in another professional group (such as large accountancy firms); or
3.2 Where ownership manifests in external investors such as “silent” stock market investors or private equity or venture capitalist institutions?

The project will require to student to arrange access to the relevant firms and practitioners to enable the research to be undertaken.

Funding Notes

Applicants interested in this research project should submit a more detailed research proposal (of a maximum of 2000 words)

This project is funded by a University of Aberdeen Elphinstone Scholarship. An Elphinstone Scholarship covers the cost of tuition fees, whether Home, EU or Overseas. Selection will be made on academic merit.

How good is research at Aberdeen University in Business and Management Studies?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 13.30

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

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