Criminal law firm keeps opening offices despite recruitment challenge

A rapidly expanding criminal law firm has opened its 23rd office but its managing partner says the “lack of individuals to hire” is its biggest – and worsening – challenge.

Nevertheless, Jan Matthews said Reeds Solicitors would continue its expansion, moving gradually into the north from its presence in the Midlands and the south, now boosted by an office in Northampton.

“We simply can’t find the people to staff our offices, and it’s getting worse,” he told Legal Futures.

Reeds has 99 solicitors, around 150 fee-earners and 230 staff, but Mr Matthews said up to a dozen staff had left Reeds for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in the past three years.

“We’ve had people on £35,000, when the CPS could offer them £55,000 plus a civil service pension. We can’t compete with that. We rely on staff not wanting to work for the CPS.”

He said other factors making recruitment difficult were solicitors retiring or transferring to better-paid areas of work, such as family.

Reeds has diversified, moving into family (mainly care-related), mental health law, Court of Protection and prison law. This accounted for around 35% of the firm’s income, with legal aid work making up 85%.

He said expansion was based on people, rather than locations. Physical offices were essential, to enable the firm to secure legal aid contracts.

“If we come across people we believe in and want to open in those areas and they want the challenge of taking on something new under our banner, then we open. We find the people and build it around them.”

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Mr Matthews said Reeds outsourced its administrative, finance and HR functions to a company which specialised is providing these services to law firms. The cost reduced as the firm grew in size.

Reeds was set up by Mr Matthews’ mother, Lee Reed, a solicitor-advocate, in 1999 as a single office in Oxford, specialising in crime. She was joined by his brother, Stuart Matthews, who is an equity partner.

Jan Matthews trained at the firm, qualifying in 2008. By 2010 he was managing director, and the firm embarked on a series of “opportunistic expansions”.

He said the law firm would like to expand northwards over the next three to five years, but only into the big urban areas where there was a sufficient quantity of Crown Court work.

He supported the criminal law barristers’ strike, which went “all-out” this week even though it was “unhelpful” to Reeds and its clients.

Mr Matthews said that as trials were halted, cash flow was becoming a “very significant issue” for criminal law firms, particularly the smaller ones.

“I would not be surprised if we started to see significant failures if this lasts into the New Year.”

However, Mr Matthews said he expected the government to resolve the strike “fairly soon”, though he did not know how.

“Something will happen that will allow a resolution and both parties to claim that they have won to a degree.”