By: 29 March 2018
A brave new world of work: Matthew Yates of Excello Law

Be they employees, workers or self-employed, everyone wants an office with a view, as Matthew Yates of Excello Law explains

The introduction of the Legal Services Act 2007, which allowed non-lawyers to own and invest in law firms, brought with it the alternative business structure (ABS). Take up of the ABS was slow to begin with, but the past decade has seen significant change. By the end of 2017, incorporated companies accounted for 44% of all law firms, according to the eighth edition of IRN Research’s UK Legal Services Market, and the traditional partnership model accounted for only 17%. ABSs, meanwhile, have reached more than a thousand.

Excello Law was licensed as an ABS in 2013. The firm has grown in just seven years to a team of more than 85 fee earners, with year-on-year growth averaging 30%. With five UK offices across London, Liverpool, Leeds and Chester, Excello Law has also established an office in Sweden, and a partnership with new model firms in the US and Australia.

Excello Law was one of the first law firms in the UK to pioneer true agile working, according to Matthew Yates, employment lawyer at the firm, whose Leeds office he joined in October 2017. The model reduces overhead costs and uses technology to give freedom to lawyers to practise when, where and how they choose.

Yates says: “Excello Law is the kind of firm that I can take a day away from. It has an agile business model that allows me to step away but manage my work via email and phone. I’ll have to get back to it once I get home but that’s my choice. I don’t want the traditional nine-to-five business hours; I want to be able to pick it up whenever I can. I can work when and where I want, and with whichever client I choose, at whatever pace suits me. There’s no-one on my back about billable hours, nor any administrative burden.”

Yates has spent his career at ‘traditional’ law firms, including Gordons, Hammonds, DWF and Brabners, forging a specialisation in the transport and logistics sectors, which are familiar with ‘flexible’ working and its many forms.

Yates says: “Clients have been keen and enthusiastic about my move to Excello Law. They aren’t put off by the fact that I’m not at a massive firm—although Excello Law is a decent size—they enjoy the fact that they can get the partner they’ve worked with for more than 20 years at good rates, without any pressure. All of their feedback has been positive. My flexibility has proven particularly beneficial to them, because they can get better access to me.”

Of course, the ABS has not sounded the death knell for traditional law firms, despite the fall in partnerships last year. Rather, a new equilibrium appears to be forming—one in which every member of the legal services workforce has the opportunity to choose which kind of firm they work for.

“I think it would be very difficult for anyone to replace the original partner-led firm,” says Yates. “But I envision that there will be a reduction in the number of lawyers that are employed by or are otherwise engaged in the traditional partner-led firms, partly because the modern world is changing all of the time. What clients expect from their lawyers won’t stay the same and we have to react to that.”

It could be argued that the so-called gig economy, which utilises temporary positions and short-term contracts, has emerged from workers’ desires for this kind of environment, where they can come and go, and aren’t tied down for significant stretches of their lives.

Yates comments: “The Excello Law model is well placed to deal with that. It all depends on the workforce and what they require from their employers and their careers. The gig economy that has emerged over the past few years doesn’t just apply to a few sectors, such as transport and logistics; it very much applies to anyone who wants to deliver goods and services in a flexible way.”

“Of course, some people don’t want to do it that way, which is also fine. There is a lot of room for the traditional law firm that operates a large and luxurious office space and reception area in which to host clients. That kind of client care is important to them and so requires the kind of the model that they operate.”

Yates adds: “You also have to consider new entrants to the market, such as accountants providing legal services, as well as the Law Society saying that you don’t have to be a solicitor to operate a legal services firm. There’s an awful lot of good opportunities out there for lawyers if they don’t want to work in the environment of the traditional law firm.”

Taxi for uncertainty

The sectors in which Yates specialises—transport and logistics—have seen their fair share of recent litigation over employment rights, with Deliveroo and Uber among the most high profile. In the case of Uber, which characterised its drivers as users of its service rather than actual employees, an employment tribunal ruled against the taxi app, classifying its drivers as ‘workers’ with a right to paid holiday, the minimum wage and other rights.

The government has since stepped in, responding to Matthew Taylor’s Independent Review of Employment Practices in the Modern Economy, which recommended clarification of the legal definitions of ‘employee’, ‘worker’ and ‘self-employed’.

In response, the government said it would only issue “a detailed consultation examining options, including new legislation, to make it easier for both the workforce and businesses to understand whether someone is an employee, worker or self-employed”.

Yates says: “There is a general feeling in the gig economy that many people want the flexibility that comes with short-term and temporary working, while being paid a fair rate for the jobs that they do. Of course, there are also some who want those extra protections—and that’s what’s missing. Under the law, you’re either employed or self-employed. There is an inbetween status, but it’s poorly defined and probably requires an examination at the government level.”

He adds: “The government is following up on the Taylor review and we’ll see what recommendations it comes up with. A clarification of the laws in place would probably be welcomed by businesses, but then the unions would probably argue that that wouldn’t go far enough. Then there is the potential for one of the biggest employment law shake-ups for a long time.”

“I think that clarification should be what we’re looking to do, for the benefit of both employers and employees.”

Outside of his day job, Yates is a director of road safety programme Driver First Assist, a not-for-profit organisation that he helped to set up. It trains drivers in incident management and first aid so that they can manage the scene at a road traffic collision, prior to the arrival of the emergency services.

“Discussions were had with the emergency services at the national level about Driver First Assist, which they were fully behind,” Yates explains. “The idea is to empower drivers on British roads to assist in the event of road traffic collisions. The majority of deaths occur from blocked airways, bleeds and injuries such as those, so the idea is that having an early response at the scene, until emergency services arrive, might be able to prevent these deaths.”

Driver First Assist is aiming to train enough drivers to have at least 100,000 members on British roads at any one time. This could reduce deaths from road traffic collisions by as much as 46%, and saving approximately £1.4 billion for the government, according to Yates.

He adds: “It was initially aimed at HGV drivers and those people who drive for a living, because they are on the road the most. However, Driver First Assist is now receiving interest from all road users, including motorcyclists and cyclists, due to its potential impact on safety on our roads”

“Driver First Assist has proven popular because it sits well with the idea of an agile workforce who aren’t in an office, having the time to take on the role of the Good Samaritan, but in a well regulated way. This can, at the end of the day, save lives.”