Spear's retiring legal columnist, Martyn Gowar, shares his 45 years' wisdom in the industry
‘As I reach the springtime of my senility’ were the words which Dennis Silk used on retiring as a governor from Wellington College some years ago. As I come to write my final column upon my retirement as a solicitor, I thought it an appropriate introduction, hoping all the time that I might be a tenth as in control of my faculties as Dennis was.
I thought that I might mention a few of the changes in the profession of solicitor over the 45 years since I qualified. First, the sheer number of solicitors: there were then about 30,000 and that figure has now quadrupled at least. Whether it is cause or effect, we have also seen a move from solicitors being generalist to being much more specialised. In part, of course, it is a result of the explosion in the volume of law in almost every area of practice, and especially in tax law.
However, it does not change that it is what the client wants to buy and not what the lawyer wants to sell which is paramount. The client wants a coherent answer to the whole problem, and not fifteen answers to fifteen very interesting technical questions where no one keeps a firm grip on the client’s economic or commercial objective. Those lawyers who have understood the technical issues and can conduct the orchestra of specialists are the ones whose success is assured.
At the same time, lawyers have to be able to work with other professions who bring a different perspective to solving problems. Over the years, I have found that, when a case justifies working with an accountant, then the complementary approach to the solution is often of great value to the client and to each team. The lawyer is trained to work from the law towards the numbers, while the accountant will work from the numbers towards the law. It is a subtle, but important, difference.
On another level, the move from being a lawyer (or indeed an accountant or a banker) to being a trusted adviser is the biggest step change. It does not happen overnight and it demands complete trust between the client and the adviser.
This has to be grounded in what I call the basic tenets of being a professional, as opposed to a trader. What defines to me the professional is that you can rely on the qualities of integrity, independence, judgment, assumed wisdom and, last but by no means least, the twin virtues of loyalty and trust (both given and received). Not every lawyer attains that state of grace with every, or indeed any, client — there has to be an empathy which just may not spark to the highest level. But it is the pinnacle of achievement.
There are clear examples where the adviser’s firm and the client’s interests can create a tension in the area of independence. It happens that a firm’s marketing department, with the support of the management, is looking to generate increased billings from a new service with increased profits in view. So the adviser, as a partner in the firm, will be under pressure to support the development of work from the client, whether or not the client needs the service. The professional adviser will only think once in judging the client’s needs. If the decision is that the service is not needed, then that will be the end of it.
It goes back to two things I remember from my first days in the office which have always lived with me. One partner said to me quite simply: ‘My services are for sale, my reputation is not.’ The other told me the values of the firm were ‘clients first, staff second, partners last’. As he pointed out, if you get the first two right, then the third will follow.
But it does highlight that if a trusted adviser is asked by a client to undertake something which is not right, then the adviser will have no hesitation in saying no, because integrity will fashion the judgment, and independence will allow the decision not to support it, even at financial cost to the partner or the firm. It worries me that the new model, allowing outside investors to build law firms up purely for profits, will pressurise partners not to be driven by the clients’ best interests.
Don’t get me wrong — I am proud to have had such a satisfying professional life and I am mightily impressed by the calibre of the new lawyers I meet. May they give you the service, the insights and the confidence you need to feel as you test their talents to help you further your interests and protect them.
Martyn is a hard act to follow, but Spear’s knows the perfect person. Co-founder of her own law firm and winner of the Spear’s Trusted Adviser Award, our legal columnist from the next issue will be Ceris Gardner of Maurice Turnor Gardner.