360 From the Ground Up: Building a Law Firm
When you have a vision of a better way to do business, with the right support, you can make that vision a reality.
J O N AT H A N BLOOM Chairman and CEO, Avonhurst
J A M E S HACKING Chief Operational Officer, Avonhurst; Partner, Kindleworth
S U Z Y O’KEEFE Managing Director, Major, Lindsey & Africa That’s exactly what Jonathan Bloom, an experienced City finance lawyer whose illustrious career includes opening the London office of Ropes & Gray, did last year when he launched a new advisory firm called Avonhurst. Providing political, legal and capital services, Avonhurst is the new kid on the block shaking up the BigLaw firms with its unique model and approach. Thanks in part to its refreshing way of working, from its no-billable hours to its flat structure and collegiate culture, it has an appeal that transcends the impressive array of sophisticated clients for whom it acts, and it has certainly had no problem attracting some of the best lawyers in the market since its launch.
Jonathan took the first step to realize his vision when, through the recommendation of a former recruiter at Major, Lindsey & Africa, he met with James Hacking, a partner at Kindleworth, to discuss his ideas for a new firm. Kindleworth is the go-to partner behind the market’s best new boutique law firms, offering strategy, finance, HR, technology and compliance support. With James providing ongoing operational and strategic support in his role as COO of Avonhurst, and with the recruitment assistance of a couple of trusted consultants on the partner and associate sides, Avonhurst’s charismatic founder has found the recipe for success.
We spoke to Jonathan, James and one of Avonhurst’s recruitment consultants, Suzy O’Keefe at Major, Lindsey & Africa, about their experiences working together and what it looks like to build a new law firm from the ground up.
Jonathan and James: How did you meet and start working together?
JONATHAN: Two years ago, a former Major, Lindsey & Africa recruiter told me about Kindleworth and encouraged me to have a conversation with them. It was on the back of that conversation that I met with James and first presented him with my idea for a new model law firm.
For years there have been boutiques dedicated to representing private equity in the U.K., but there’s never been a boutique law firm dedicated to representing what I call “sophisticated capital.”
I just thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could bring together a group of people in this space who covered the core areas of practice that those clients need—bank, bond, restructuring, corporate, real estate, regulatory and tax?” Then we could outsource the non-core work—employment, intellectual property and litigation. We could start looking at technology and using AI—not to be the leading players from a technological perspective but to be efficient and thoughtful for our clients. We would do away with the concept of a billable hour completely, and we would lower the leverage model from the traditional 4/5:1 to more like 2/2.5:1—with the half being our outsourcing model.
I also considered the fact that in today’s geopolitical climate, our clients don’t just have legal risk, they’re also exposed to political risk. I thought that an advisor with an understanding of the direction of various legislative agendas, who has access to policymakers and decision-makers, and has a team that can analyze political risk and macroeconomic issues, would be hugely valuable to our clients who are looking to deploy capital. By taking this more holistic approach to representing these clients, I felt we’d be adding something quite special to the market.
360 offer at Kindleworth is unique; there isn’t anyone else doing it. A couple of years ago we had started to think that although the word of mouth and the referral network we had generated were fantastic and we had some great clients, we also wanted to be more forward thinking about reaching out into the marketplace to find others who might be interested in the alternative platform we offer. As with any new client relationship, Jonathan and I started by spending a bit of time together; I listened to Jonathan’s vision and asked lots of questions around that, from “How would you like to build?” to “What do you think the right office environment might be?” and then we thought through the financial plan. We did a bit of work together over the course of a couple of months to really flesh that out. What is fascinating for us in the work we do is that we typically work with people who have a blank sheet of paper in front of them. It’s a hugely fulfilling exercise to be able to map out that vision and then work on how we are going to execute it together. Once Jonathan had committed to it, we then began the heavy lifting: working through the various insurance and other regulatory considerations, determining the corporate structure and governance, exploring the banking relationships, introducing branding consultants and recruitment consultants, discussing where offices might be, and considering what technology solutions exist. It’s been symbiotic. If you don’t have somebody with the right vision and the right energy behind it, it’s futile. Together, we can react to the needs of Avonhurst as they evolve. The key is to work flexibly and thoughtfully together to anticipate where the business needs to go next. Suzy: How and when did you begin working with Avonhurst and Kindleworth? SUZY: I began working with Kindleworth in 2014 on an exclusive associate search for the newly launched international arbitration law firm Three Crowns. That was an exciting opportunity for us because the firm was such a unique proposition, and it allowed us to work across London, Paris and the U.S. When I heard that Jonathan had set up a new firm, I was immediately intrigued. I knew of Jonathan and his excellent reputation. Shortly after Avonhurst’s launch, I was fortunate to get the opportunity to meet with Jonathan and Kindleworth to discuss their associate recruitment needs. Hearing from Jonathan, firsthand, the story behind Avonhurst was a real privilege, and it was clear that this firm was the real deal. I immediately bought into the model and Jonathan’s vision. The response in the market has been overwhelmingly positive; we have helped them recruit some fantastic associates. The firm has great energy and positivity. They have been very conscious of hiring people who not only are brilliant lawyers with great credentials and relationships, but also fit in well with the culture. Jonathan looks at the potential in every associate he meets and cares about their development. All: What have you discovered are some of the unexpected benefits of working together? JONATHAN: When we started the business, I knew Kindleworth could If you don’t have somebody with the right vision and the right energy behind it, it’s futile. – JAMES HACKING
It’s time that a client service business focuses on the needs and demands of the clients. [...] So, I can look at clients and say, “We built this for you,” and I think they appreciate that. – JONATHAN BLOOM
help me work out all the issues around starting a firm, but I never really appreciated the depth of the capabilities they have across the business. It’s not one person who understands compliance and one person who deals with HR; it’s teams. There’s real value in that. The fact that there are Kindleworth people who sit in our offices every day during the course of a week and that I still have calls, emails and face-to-face time every week with James and one of his partners was a really pleasant surprise. Kindleworth provides all of these services and I don’t have to worry about finding anyone else to support them.
SUZY: Kindleworth is a wellorganized, slick organization, and they are expert at what they do. Because they have such a deep understanding of their clients and because they are readily available, informed and communicative, the recruitment process is seamless and feels like a genuine collaboration. Reaching out to lawyers to discuss opportunities at Avonhurst has been a positive experience because it is such a different proposition, and lawyers generally like hearing about something different, especially when they get called a lot about the same law firms.
JAMES: We’re probably the only party that might have more expectations as to what would follow in terms of how the relationships might move around and what would come from that. But certainly, I think Avonhurst has challenged us. We’ve had to
build brand-new economic models and work out pricing structures that we’ve never had to really consider before. It’s a really deep and mutually satisfying relationship.
There’s a whole raft of unexpected benefits, and I think there’ll be more to come, but they all stem from the fundamental context of the relationship. For example, the legal marketplace is small; people know each other whether or not you’d ever think that they might have overlapped at previous firms or at organizations. There has been a sort of halo effect of being in the world that Jon inhabits every single day.
All: How are these unique business models disrupting the legal industry?
JAMES: I believe there are law firms that exist today that wouldn’t if we weren’t around, and there’ll be ones that exist in the future that wouldn’t without our help. The concept of trying to launch a practice without our kind of support is daunting, but I’d like to think we’ve been making it easier for firms to do that.
The creation of these new firms is important because they are answering fundamentally the needs of two communities. One is the lawyers themselves—how they want to work, how they want to be remunerated, how they want to engage with each other. And the second is the ultimate clients who I think continue to be frustrated by the relative rigidity of BigLaw. I think we’re helping the market to better service corporate clients in particular, and I also think that consequently we’re helping talented lawyers operate the best that they can.
JONATHAN: Are we disrupting BigLaw? I don’t know. Are we incrementally moving the model into the modern era? I definitely hope so. It’s time that a client service business focuses on the needs and demands of the clients. In this model, we thought we would ask them and then build something fit to purpose—and this is what they all said they wanted. So, I can look at clients and say, “We built this for you,” and I think they appreciate that.
SUZY: From conversations I have with lawyers in the market, I think there is an increasing appeal for firms that are breaking the BigLaw mold— firms that offer bespoke and highly commercial services to clients who value the relationships with individual lawyers, not just the law firm.
All: What advice do you have for lawyers considering branching out on their own?
SUZY: Well, I don’t think it is for the fainthearted or something to be undertaken lightly. I imagine it is a huge investment of time, energy, financials and risk. You need a very clear vision and business case and solid client relationships, and ultimately you need to know how to build and run a business.
stages of their thinking. We’ve met people who have only had the vague notion that there must be another way, and we’ve met other people who’ve been further along in that thinking. Wherever you are, you’ve got to be able to accept that it won’t go exactly as you expect. It will become its own living project. You need to have resilience, patience and determination.
What you don’t need is a fully formed answer in your own head. You have to have a sense of what you want to achieve, and you have to believe that that is exciting and possible for you. There are other people who can help you, and there are a range of options around that. So, I think it’s more about just having a good visual feel in your own mind that you think you can stand behind and be excited by.
JONATHAN: Setting up a new firm is like setting up any other business; you go from being a legal advisor who analyzes risk to an entrepreneur who’s willing to accept risk. In making that transition into being more of an entrepreneur, you have to have a completely clear vision of what you want to create and a true belief in the ultimate success of that vision. You have to see it clearly, and then you have to chase it until it becomes real. But you also have to have patience, commitment, drive, ambition and hunger. And if you have all of those things, then all you have to do is call Kindleworth!
I think there is an increasing appeal for firms that are breaking the BigLaw mold.
Meet Kindleworth https://www.kindleworth.com/ James Hacking, COO
Kindleworth, the go-to partner behind the market’s best new law firms, helps lawyers looking to create something new build their platform using their experience in law firm operations. Four former law firm colleagues, including Avonhurst COO James Hacking, joined together to create a new kind of consulting firm—one that was run by nonlawyers who had extensive experience and deep understanding of how law firms functioned and who could help partners build new law firms within the U.K. legal marketplace. Kindleworth works closely with their clients to help them turn their visions into reality, providing an operational perspective and support necessary for success.
Meet Avonhurst https://www.avonhurst.com/ Jonathan Bloom, CEO
Avonhurst considers itself more than a law firm; it’s an advisory firm providing political, legal and capital services to its clients. Jonathan Bloom, a former law firm partner, spent a significant part of his legal career immersing himself in the funds and investment community. He believed that there was a way to be more thoughtful and creative around fee structures and the building of client relationships. His desire to create something different drove him to start Avonhurst, which was founded for three key reasons: • To provide clients with a holistic suite of services that could deliver legislative and political risk analysis in addition to legal and capital services. • To address the disconnect between traditional law firm charging models and the value delivered to clients by eliminating the billable hours and providing a more creative, meaningful and relevant approach to billing. • To eliminate the needless waste and inefficiency created by the traditional approach taken to staffing, work allocation, transaction management and technology deployment.