The Solicitors Regulation Authority has named the first three organisations to be licensed as an alternative business structure.
The highest profile is Co-operative Legal Services, which is part of the Co-operative Group and already employs around 400 staff. The others are John Welch and Stammers, a firm based in Oxfordshire, and Lawbridge Solicitors Ltd, a one fee-earner practice in Kent.
The SRA also said it had received 60 completed submissions for stage 2 of the licensing process. Nearly 180 applicants have shown interest in becoming an ABS since the regulator started accepting applications on 3 January this year.
An ABS is a business providing regulated reserved legal activities but which has either, or both, non-lawyer owners and managers.
Established in 2006, Co-operative Legal Services plans to recruit more than 150 employees this year as it diversifies into family law and other areas of consumer legal practice.
ABS status will meanwhile allow seven fee-earner-strong John Welch and Stammers to appoint its practice manager, Bernadette Summers, as a non-lawyer managing partner.
Lawbridge Solicitors Ltd has one solicitor/fee earner, Michael Pope. Becoming an ABS will allow his wife Alison, currently the practice manager, to become a director of the firm and have a significant shareholding.
SRA Chief Executive Antony Townsend said: "The arrival of ABS should foster a more flexible and innovative market for legal services. By stimulating competition and encouraging innovation, we should see consumers' experiences enjoy a major boost.
"Some people may be surprised that there are two high street practices with a handful of staff among the first wave of ABS organisations that we've authorised. But we've always said that ABS offers options for all firms, not just large organisations.”
Jonathan Djanogly MP, Justice Minister, added: "This is a huge milestone for UK legal services and the future of alternative business structures.
"ABSs introduce more competition in the market place, delivering competitive pricing, higher standards of product and more choice for the consumer.”