The Story of Lawrence Stephens

Words by
Simon Brooke

14th April 2023

Meet the inclusive team at London based law firm, Lawrence Stephens. Dissatisfaction with traditional working practises prompted three talented young lawyers to set up on their own. Over 25 years later their approach to a client-focused approach to the law has been justified. 

Ask Steven Bernstein why he decided to launch Lawrence Stephens, one of London’s best-regarded law firms, with his two founding partners Lawrence Kelly and Stephen Messias, and his reasons are clear. “Lawrence, Stephen and I had been made up to partners in a large law firm, but we’d found the experience disappointing. We all had clear ideas about what a good law firm should be, and we just weren’t able to put them into practice.”

An old-fashioned and outmoded work ethos was something that Lawrence Kelly was particularly keen to move away from. “You’d be expected to work every weekend. We certainly wouldn’t demand that of our staff now,” he says. “Clients pick up on the supportive culture that we have here.”

Stephen Messias has fond memories of the early days of the firm. “All three of us shared one office with our secretary,” he remembers. “We also had a PlayStation and a dart board which was — scarily — just above my desk. We worked hard but that didn’t mean we weren’t able to enjoy being together in the workplace. There was dynamism and energy — we really enjoyed challenging the image of the traditional stuffy law firm and offering something new.” 

Steven Bernstein, Stephen Massias and Lawrence Kelly
Steven Bernstein, Stephen Massias and Lawrence Kelly launched Lawrence Stephens in 1997 from a single office equipped with a dartboard, a PlayStation and dynamism and energy.

Many of the clients that were with the firm on day one are still with Lawrence Stephens today, something that the founders put down to the high level of client service provided, together with the firm’s culture of inclusiveness, openness and friendliness.

That is something senior director Danny Schwarz can attest to. “I joined from a large firm where there was little interaction between departments and if your face didn’t fit you had no future,” he says. “Clients pick up on that kind of working culture — and that’s why so many come to us, I believe. They’re looking for a firm that’s professional and experienced but also human. I have a client, for instance, who makes the best cakes in London, and he won’t let me leave a meeting without taking a box of them back for the office.”

The Lawrence Stephens motto — “We’re a people business” — derives its underlying philosophy by interacting with clients and colleagues in a very human way. Knowledge of the law is a given when people choose a top-level law firm — what really counts is whether they connect with the human beings at that firm. Lawrence Kelly points to the low turnover of staff. “In 26 years, none of the senior directors has left and that says a lot,” he says. “I think that the clients we act for appreciate the fact that, like them, we run our own business. When you’re acting for entrepreneurs, or people starting up or growing their business, you can empathise because you’ve been in the same position.”

Traditionally the law has been process-driven but Lawrence Stephens takes a holistic approach — as trusted advisors they have always had an eye to developing their clients’ businesses and that might involve arranging networking over lunch or drinks.

For senior director Jeff Rubenstein, the business is all about building relationships. “You need to make sure that every client feels as though they’re your only client and that you’re completely focused on them,” he explains. “You become a trusted advisor to them. It’s not just about telling them what the law says — it’s about helping them to grow their business. I still act today for a number of my clients who came with me when I joined the firm in 1998 and have now developed long-term relationships with the next generation of owners and managers.”

This strong emphasis on the human factor is something that senior director Andrew Conway picked up on during his first encounter with the firm. “The place I was working for was the subject of a merger and so suddenly I was part of a bigger organisation, one in which I had no voice,” he says. “I wanted to have some influence in the way that the firm I was working for operated and developed.”

He remembers his first meeting with the Lawrence Stephens founders. “We spent most of the time talking about football and the people that we knew in common. I think they knew that I knew the law, they just wanted to see what kind of person I was.” He got the job and over the past 24 years has risen through the ranks to become one of the owners of the business.

Rather than being a box-ticking exercise, corporate social responsibility is at the heart of Lawrence Stephens. Every year the staff nominate a charity and raise money for it; this year’s charity is Crohn’s & Colitis UK. Gregory Palos, a senior director, says: “We do runs and bake-offs to raise money. When we hire, we’re also looking for people who will contribute to the life of the firm and take on some of the charitable initiatives that we have, rather than just doing their billable hours.”

Staff wellbeing is also an essential element of the firm’s philosophy. The Lawrence Stephens Wellness Concept was initiated by Christina Ioannou, an associate in the real estate finance department and a certified health coach.

Consistency of service and personnel is key for Lawrence Stephens, but all of the team are also very aware of the need to constantly evolve, to respond to the changes in the legal world. “My work, litigation and dispute resolution, has changed beyond recognition since I started,” explains Lawrence Kelly. “There’s been a complete overhaul of the civil procedure rules and the law is constantly evolving. Today there’s more of a focus on mediation without the need for protracted and expensive court proceedings.”

The gender balance is another noticeable change, according to Steven Bernstein. “Our current intake of trainees are all female, as are two thirds of our fee earners. That aligns with the new flexible working culture. It makes it easier for young women who want to start a family or who do most of the childcare.”

Tanya Berberova, the firm’s financial controller, has been at Lawrence Stephens for 12 years, during which time she has had two children. “The senior leadership team understands the care-giving role that most women have, and they always put that first,” she says. “The flexibility is unparalleled and the support I’ve received each day has been so welcome. Raising my children and working full time at the firm has only been possible because the leadership team here prioritises family.”

Gregory Palos, who joined in 2004, says: “Over the years we’ve taken the firm in a direction that we can be very pleased with. I don’t think any of us could have imagined we would be where we are now when we first started out on our journey.

“We all have different backgrounds and experiences, but concern for our clients and doing the best for them is the glue that has held us all together — and will continue to do so.”

Goli-Michelle Banan, Head of Residential Real Estate 

Goli-Michelle Banan, Head of Residential Real Estate
Goli-Michelle Banan, Head of Residential Real Estate at Lawrence Stephens

Even if you have a few mill languishing in your bank account, buying a luxury property in London is something of a challenge. “Many sellers do not actually need to sell and so they have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude unlike that found in the mid to low-end market,” explains Goli-Michelle Banan, head of residential real estate at Lawrence Stephens. 

If you want to secure the property of your dreams you also need to be ready to act quickly, she warns. “Having a solicitor who has experience of fast-paced, high-end property transactions will make a significant difference. Solicitors used to communicate via letter, now it’s email, text or WhatsApp. Immediate responses are expected.”

Another trend is increasing costs. “Not only have property prices gone up significantly but professional fees have also risen in line with inflation,” she explains. It’s thus even more important for buyers and sellers to be organised and well prepared with all the necessary paperwork, including the source of wealth information.

Banan adds: “Finally, instructing a reliable professional team, including your solicitor, surveyor and mortgage broker, will improve the chances of a successful purchase transaction.”

Naheed Taj, Head of Family Law

Naheed Taj - Head of Family Law
Naheed Taj - Head of Family Law

Recent changes in the divorce process, such as no-fault divorce, while a small step in the right direction, have unfortunately failed to address what are often the fundamental barriers to a successful resolution following the breakdown of marriage. The courts continue to leave the important messages to convey to separating parties to the lawyers, while the government continues to limit and erode the all-important access to legal advice.

Importantly, explains Naheed Taj, head of family at Lawrence Stephens, it’s important to adopt a flexible mindset, especially when it comes to settlement.

“You might spend a lot more money than is needed fighting small issues, when the court and your financial security will more often than not be reliant upon compromise and looking at the bigger picture.  Proportionality is key,” she says.

“Often in cases, parties look to settle old grievances and point the finger, when in reality, often all this achieves is to cause hurt, delay settlements, and instil bitterness long after it should have become a distant memory, whereas the parties who adopt a proactive approach — who say to themselves, the relationship is over, that the hurt will go, that this is not about punishment, but about meeting the financial needs of me and the children — these are the clients who generally achieve better outcomes.” 

Taj advises clients to build a trusting relationship with their lawyer and their team, to be ready to disclose personal information in a timely manner — and to be forward-looking. “A lot of people focus on the past rather than looking at the bigger picture,”
she says. “While divorce can be very painful, especially if there have been issues surrounding adultery, lies or bad behaviour, it’s important to look to the future and focus on where you aim to be long after your separation is a distant memory.”