Lawyer Chaman Salhan’s innovative new company, 2ndOpinionNow, is set to shake up the legal system – offering a boost to businesses seeking affordable legal advice
As leaden London clouds loom behind him, Chaman Salhan twists around in his boardroom chair to gaze down at the Old Bailey. It’s here – and in other branches of Her Majesty’s Courts of Justice – where bewigged barristers glide swan-like into court and lawmen address each other as “my learned friend”.
Such pomped-up pageantry has persisted for centuries, bestowing Britain’s legal system with its necessary authoritarian sheen. But there are other archaisms which Salhan believes puts businesses at a serious disadvantage, namely cumbersome, expensive by-the-hour consultancies and their failure to adapt to the digital age.
“The legal system is like a big oak tree – it hasn’t changed,” says Salhan, a lawyer with over two decades’ experience. “Business has completely transformed itself yet the legal system has stood still. Why? Well lawyers, like taxi drivers, get paid by the clock. It has worked for them, so why change? Through our corporate retainer and barrister service, we intend to change this.”
Salhan is on a mission to do something about it. His disruptive new legal company, 2ndOpinionNow, is the only legal firm in the UK with a website that allows users to obtain a written barrister opinion on any legal problem (unsurprisingly, those tweet-a-lawyer services don’t count).
The fact that 2ndOpinionNow.co.uk is the only website doing this might seem staggering but when Salhan mentions that he knows some legal partners “who don’t know how to email”, the legal system’s often antediluvian approach becomes apparent. It’s understandable that Salhan views his business as revolutionary, believing it will catapult British law into the 21st century.
Support for SMEs
UK SMEs spend over £9bn a year on legal advice and are being suffocated by fees – The Times ran a report in July entitled “Small companies priced out of the system by law fees increase”.
2ndOpinionNow offers an alternative to spending costly hours discussing commercial disputes in stuffy provincial solicitor offices. The website enables firms to procure first-rate legal advice from a pool of over 10,000 barristers and solicitors – including QCs (Queen’s Counsel) – from the comfort of their workplace or living room.
“The legal system is flawed for SMEs because they need to access lawyers at an affordable rate who are available in their vicinity,” says Salhan.
“If you’re in a big city you may have access to lots of lawyers, but often they can be very expensive. The scenario is completely different if you have a specialist legal need, in a more rural location. The absence of easily accessible specialist legal advice is starving would-be entrepreneurs of an essential business need. To make our businesses great, we need great lawyers – regardless of location and cost. That is what we at 2nd Opinion Now try to deliver.”
At 2nd Opinion Now, companies seeking a solution to such legal conundrums can either access its specialist website (with a panel of 10,000 lawyers ready to advise on matters as diverse as FCA regulation to surrendering commercial leases) or utilise their ingenious corporate retainer, which allows companies to pay an agreed monthly fee suitable to them, for unlimited access to legal advice.
Budgeting for legal advice is something many SMEs ignore when building their business. A Legal Services Board report last year found that 23 per cent of SMEs reported significant loss of income due to unaddressed legal issues, while six per cent reported employees had to be culled or businesses closed down. It’s expensive too. The average financial cost per unaddressed legal issue was £13,812.
The Law Society indicated that recent government plans for a new round of court fee rises are “tantamount to selling justice like a commodity”. As Salhan points out: “Ignorance of the law is never a defence for any director, nor is failing to take legal advice and/or action under the misapprehension that it will cost too much.”
Salhan, the son of a migrant Indian foundry worker, grew up in Handsworth, Birmingham. He knew at an early age he wanted to escape the abject poverty he grew up in, especially having lived through the city’s 1980s race riots. He read Banking and International Finance at Cass Business School before settling on a career in law.
His wife and the company’s business development consultant, Nav, read Law at Coventry University before settling on a career in finance.
Salhan believes that to help businesses with legal problems, lawyers need to be able to understand business as well as the law: “All too often good lawyers are poor businessmen and, often, good businesses lack the necessary understanding of the law to utilise it to their advantage.”
Even though he regularly features in the news, he has two specific career highlights – the first, when he represented two Labour councillors accused of postal-vote rigging (the first election court convened in 100 years).
The second, when he acted for one of the most prosecuted criminal masterminds in Europe; known affectionately as ‘The Teflon Don’. Both have helped Salhan remain dedicated to his work, as the first day he started.
At present, Salhan represents governments (Cambodia and Pakistan to encourage UK/EU trade development), blue-chip companies, leading charities and numerous SMEs.
Salhan has an enviable reputation as a brilliant litigator and corporate law strategist. When asked the secret of his success, he remarks: “As a young man I played county chess. On one occasion I was fortunate enough to play and draw against a Russian grandmaster. I knew then that one can achieve anything as long as one has the faith and determination.”
It is that self belief and faith that led him to start up 2ndOpinionNow.
Twenty years’ legal experience has bequeathed Salhan with an impressive Rolodex of contacts, many of which form 2ndOpinionNow’s 10,000-strong lawyer pool, which bosses are able to access at the click of a mouse.
For everyday issues such as income tax or health and safety queries, directors can use the solicitor service, while a barrister would be helpful in more bespoke cases such as corporate manslaughter (Salhan likens the difference between a solicitor and a barrister to that of a GP and consultant).
Directors, who can scythe through complex legal jargon by accessing 2ndOpinionNow’s easy-to-use templates and questionnaires, can select the speed of advice, whether it’s the company’s seven-day or expedited four-day service (at an extra cost).
“The idea is to consider the problem and price range of the client and tie them in with a barrister in their region,” explains Salhan. “Even if we haven’t got the direct expertise that the person wants, through our network of more than 10,000 lawyers, we have access to who’ll be best for them.”
The advice doesn’t need to be in the form of impersonal emails either. “If you want face-to-face interaction, we can travel – our clients span Cornwall to Newcastle.”
Salhan says he regularly encounters SMEs that have ended up in a legal quagmire because they have failed to include it as part of their business plan.
“People genuinely think about lawyers as people you consult when you have a problem – they don’t talk to them earlier to prevent a problem from happening,” says Salhan. “If you want to be a successful business, you should be making sure you are protecting yourself… It’s about being ahead of the curve. When you budget for a year, you should budget for legal work because most companies don’t.”
Preventing problems before they happen is what 2ndOpinionNow’s corporate retainer is all about. Businesses pay a monthly fee, specifically agreed to suit their budget and legal requirements, with 2ndOpinionNow taking care of all the legal work.
Again Salhan stresses that it is particularly useful for smaller companies: “Big corporates have legal counsel but SMEs don’t. Where are they able to go to unburden all their legal problems in a cost-effective way?
“Whether it’s health-and-safety accidents or contractual disputes, you’re constantly consulting different people,” he adds.
“Our idea is to centralise it, reducing your cost-base… A good legal team will deal with your HR policy, regulatory work or make sure legal contracts are so tight that customers/suppliers will think twice before breaching them. In fact, we shoulder the legal burdens for our clients, so that they can get on with doing what they do best, namely, building great businesses.”
Salhan has seen a surge in interest from SMEs seeking legal advice after they’ve been bad-mouthed by competitors. “Very few companies, especially small ones, deal with protecting their corporate brand,” says Salhan.
“If you’ve got a local competitor bad-mouthing you, it helps to have the reassurance of saying you have a corporate law firm dealing with your legal affairs who will take your rogue competitor to court for this defamatory behaviour.”
Salhan has also witnessed trends for whistle-blowing (employees reporting wrongdoings), as well as internal power struggles. “You get situations where two friends have set up a business and greed kicks in,” he says.
“Or maybe a co-director will say, ‘I’m working so hard but my business partner is only putting in 30 per cent and yet they are taking half the money’. These things are becoming increasingly prevalent while people are more litigious than they used to be. We try and help businesses to resolve problems without litigation, but where that becomes necessary, we fight to win.”
By embracing technology, Salhan believes 2ndOpinionNow occupies an advantageous position.
“In 10 years’ time, if people have a legal problem, they aren’t going to visit their local solicitor – they’ll go online, tap in their problem and say, ‘what do we do now?’ We want to be there first, working closely with SMEs to help improve profitability, reduce commercial disputes and provide the right environment to help them flourish.”
Sounds like somebody down at the Old Bailey should be taking note.
To find out more about Chaman Salhan’s legal business, visit 2ndopinionnow.co.uk or call 020 7936 3177
Chaman Salhan is a member of IoD Central London
2ndOpinionNow will have a stand at the IoD Annual Convention on 6 October at the Royal Albert Hall iod.com/annualconvention