September 23, 2020

Built for startups: how one law firm’s bridging the legal advice gap for UK SMEs

Almost half of UK small-business owners and the self-employed believe that the legal advice sector is ‘not set up for them’.

Calum Covell

6 min read

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Perceptions around cost, difficulty of access and a lack of technology were the main barriers reported by SMEs put off from looking for legal help in a 2019 survey conducted by Nesta.

Even the SRA, the regulatory board for UK solicitors, recognises the problem. Anna Bradley, chair of the SRA board, said: “Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy. From helping complete a new lease to taking on the first member of staff, sound legal advice is crucial if businesses are to succeed. But it's clear that too many small businesses struggle to access the legal support they need.”

This call to arms has been mostly ignored by the legal industry. But today a new breed of law firm is challenging the norm and finally catering for this long-ignored market.


Harper James Solicitors was founded by Toby Harper precisely because he’d seen first-hand the struggles faced by small businesses in accessing quality legal support often at stages critical to their development. 

Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy.

While working as the in-house counsel for a Midlands venture capital firm, Harper hit upon an idea: what if a law firm operated like a nimble startup, focusing its most valued assets — solicitors — on giving legal advice without the bureaucracy or administration found in a traditional law firm? And what if those solicitors were to work remotely, could it then offer ambitious businesses more affordable rates for its high-quality legal services?

Armed with a strong knowledge of business financing and all things startup, Harper left his in-house role and secured a government startup loan to set up his own law firm in 2014. His aim was to transform business legal services by creating a modern law firm purpose built to meet the demands of entrepreneurs.

In the space of six years, Harper James Solicitors now works alongside 1,200 companies. What the clients have in common, according to Harper, is innovation and ambition.

“Supporting entrepreneurs and new businesses has always been my passion,” says Harper.

“As an entrepreneur myself, I know the barriers that exist to getting your idea off the ground. Harper James believes in providing access to first-class legal advice which businesses need — at a cost that won’t bankrupt them at the first hurdle. Helping our partners achieve their business dreams is at the heart of the service we provide.”

Harper said that it was thanks to Harper James’ pricing models that many of the startups — who may have felt legal support was out of their financial reach — are able to access high-quality legal advice. Built around a low-cost subscription model, Harper James legal services are tiered according to how much legal support your business needs. 

“I wanted to create a service that was dramatically different in the way it was priced that would get people talking,” Harper says. “We’ve achieved that and attracted a lot of new clients along the way.”

For many, that starts at just £99 per hour: a fraction of the price many rival City firms offer their services for. Under other plans clients can bulk-buy hours, meaning the more they buy, the lower the hourly rate they are charged.

And, as businesses grow, Harper James offers packages that grow too, meaning its clients can access all the help they need on the journey to reaching their goals. 

Harper says he is in no mood to slow down.

“Unless you continually evolve your offering, it is hard to thrive,” he says. “I have big aspirations for this firm. We’ve grown rapidly in six years. And, at some point we will become a top 100 firm. It may take us a while to get there, but we will.”

I wanted to create a service that was dramatically different in the way it was priced that would get people talking.

Futureproofing your business

According to Harper, Harper James’ lawyers typically have a minimum of 10 years post-qualified experience and have either been employed at a top 100 UK law firm or worked in-house at a large international business. They practise remotely and this flexible way of working has broken down geographical barriers and allowed Harper James to build partnerships right across the UK.

Harper says that this model allows them to be typically cheaper than the competition: “Our experienced lawyers work flexibly, which allows them to achieve a good work-life balance. This in turn reduces our overheads, so we can pass on those cost savings to our clients. But one thing we never compromise on is the quality of our service.”

“That service allows the clients Harper James work with to access all the legal support any business needs to scale,” he adds. 

Transparency from the start

It’s a tough world for businesses starting out, and no more so than in 2020, still reeling from the consequences of a global pandemic. 

Harper says that it’s a time when many of their clients — which include startups like Hopin, Hospify and Howamigoing — are pleased to have a law firm with a pay-as-you-go subscription model rather than being locked into an expensive contract.

Harper James’ Enterprise plan, a legal support package specifically designed for startups and smaller businesses, has a £189 monthly subscription fee. This provides clients with one hour of legal advice per month which rolls over if unused plus access additional legal support from just £99 per hour.

This, says Harper, allows businesses to spread the cost of legal advice while enjoying peace of mind that additional support can be quickly accessed without substantially higher costs.

“It’s like having my own in-house counsel”

Chris Mason runs Namos Solutions, a small business and Oracle consultancy. He likened the relationship with Harper James to that of a partnership, rather than a typical customer and supplier.

“Harper James are our trusted legal adviser and having them by our side at key moments in our business growth, knowing we are protected, is immensely reassuring. Each of the individuals we’ve worked with at Harper James has always shown incredible expertise and the utmost professionalism with very much a 'can-do' attitude,” he said.

For Jo Evershed, founder of Cauldron Science and online experiments builder Gorilla, there are real benefits to working with Harper James as her business scales: “It's been a breath of fresh air to work with Harper James Solicitors. It's like having my own in-house counsel, but at a fraction of the cost. It's an invaluable service for any small business.”

When it comes to the business of raising finance and working with investors to help scale startups, Harper James’ strong corporate team is also valued by leading VC and investment companies. Kieran Hill, chief operating officer of Ascension Ventures said: “Our long-standing relationship has enabled us to get deals over the line quickly and efficiently — with minimum fuss.”

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