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Law Update: Success brings closure

The women's co-operative law firm, Kate Berry & Co, is to close at the end of this month, after almost five years.

The Bristol firm worked almost exclusively in the legal aid field, offering specialist services in areas such as domestic violence, childcare and tenants' rights. It was neither financial difficulties nor lack of clients that has forced its closure, but the issue of recruitment and retention of solicitors.

'The business was both financially and professionally successful,' according to its administrator, Lesley Welch. 'We turned a loss of pounds 6,000 in 1989, our opening year, to a profit of pounds 22,000 last year.'

The firm was also well on the way towards applying for a legal aid franchise. 'The problem was that we didn't recognise our structural weakness,' Ms Welch says. Three of the original five lawyers left at the end of the second year. Last summer, one of the two remaining solicitor partners decided to leave, and that was when the Berrys team realised how fragile its structure had become.

'Her departure left one solicitor partner alone carrying responsibility for all our legal work - in the eyes of the Law Society a sole practitioner - which made nonsense of our co-operative ideals,' Ms Welch says. Merger with another firm was considered and rejected for a similar reason.

Berrys' staff - lawyers and non-lawyers - were on equal pay. To counter Law Society rules forbidding non-solicitor partners, the firm set up a limited company, a 'secondary marketing co- op', to employ its non-lawyer staff.

The profession is not set up for those looking for rewards beyond the pay package, Ms Welch says.

'Recruitment was always difficult. We had to find a solicitor with sufficient experience who was prepared to work in conditions of collective responsibility with an adequate salary, but one far lower than could be earned elsewhere.'

Clients are not being left high and dry. 'We are giving them whatever assistance they need,' Ms Welch says. Many will go with two of the firm's employed solicitors who have new jobs with other local firms.

Ms Welch, who has been with the firm since it opened, has not been so fortunate and is still 'desperately' looking for a job. She is very sad at the looming closure. 'I'm trying to avoid words like baby and death,' she says. 'But it was a complete project that we built up. It has been very successful on many levels, and could have remained so for a long time.'