On running the UK’s leading practice for the pensions and retirement savings industry as it enters its 50th year
Can you tell us a bit about your day to day role at Sackers?
I am the firm’s senior partner but I work full-time on client matters. I advise the trustees of a number of pension schemes and have gained extensive experience on a wide range of pensions issues. I am also chairman of the firm’s Independent Trustee Company, the independent chairman of trustees of several pension funds, the chair of Aegon UK’s Independent Governance Committee and the chair of the Association of Professional Pension Trustees (APPT). All of this means that I have gained a good appreciation of the issues faced by trustee boards and sponsoring employers from a client perspective. There is no doubting that I’m busy but as the market is changing so rapidly I’m still learning all the time.
Congratulations on the firm’s 50th anniversary! What’s its secret?
Thank you – it’s certainly a milestone for the firm and it’s something we are very proud of. There are many reasons why Sackers has been successful and is now at the top of its game. However, a real differentiator for us is that we have the largest pensions practice under one roof of any firm while at the same time being small enough to retain our close knit collaborative culture. That’s an unusual combination which enables us to form long-standing relationships with our clients and advise them on a range of high quality and complex work.
The other secret of our success is that people come to Sackers and they stay. It might sound trite but we inspire passion and commitment. We are a human business where people work together for a shared common goal. I firmly believe this is also the reason why we retain our clients. Put simply: they appreciate the combination of first class expertise and a more personal service.
What have been the real highlights/ standout moments over the past five decades?
As well as the World Cup, 1966 also saw respected solicitor Harry Sacker leave his role at Linklaters to set up his own practice. At the time, a firm could have no more than 20 partners and Harry knew that as a humble pensions lawyer he probably wouldn’t make partnership. So, he decided to leave and set up on his own and was joined by most of his clients (with Linklaters’ blessing, I should add!).
In the years that followed, the firm grew and did other types of work. However, in 1990 it undertook a strategic review which resulted in three options: Go global, go niche or go bust! We opted to specialise. The partnership decided to refine its focus to become a specialist law firm advising the pensions industry. That process really kick started the next phase in our history and since then we have built our reputation as the leading law firm for the pensions and retirement savings industry.
These two key moments have brought us to where we are now. I should add that an anniversary such as this makes you reflective. You look back as well as forward, you take stock and you analyse. We want to make sure that Sackers is still going strong in another 50 years’ time.
How have things changed at the firm since you joined the partnership?
I arrived from Nicholson Graham & Jones in 1996 and Sackers has changed in so many ways since then. Obviously the rise of technology now means fewer face to face meetings and letters, but the real shift has been the sheer pace of communication. Clients now (quite rightly) expect a response the same day as they are under pressure themselves so that immediacy defines how we operate. We have adapted but we have never lost the personal touch.
There has also been much consolidation in the wider pensions world. There are now fewer serious players in the sector with more regular adviser reviews being undertaken. This isn’t something that we fear. In fact, we encourage schemes to hold reviews as they drive the need for specialists.
Pensions have become increasingly important so how has Sackers evolved to reflect that trend?
We are always trying to anticipate what pension scheme clients are looking for. Our focus is on staying ahead of trends; we want to anticipate them rather than react to them. There have been several over recent years including more disputes involving pension schemes; the rise of more sophisticated investments; the use of contingent assets as well as derivatives coming into the market; and most recently the growth of DC arrangements. The key for us has been to predict these trends and then work out how we meet that specific need. That could be anything from setting up a new team to making strategic hires such as Philippa Connaughton and Jacqui Reid as we have done this year, to introducing a new service offering. Evolution is critical and non-negotiable.
A law firm can only be successful if it has happy people. Why is Sackers a good place to work?
The proof of the pudding is - of course - in the eating, but most people have been here for a long time and that speaks volumes. We foster a real sense of commitment. Respect is also essential and we conduct ourselves properly. We nurture younger assistants in a supportive way, we insist on a healthy work life balance and we support flexible working. These are all pillars of our business. Plus, we have the best quality pensions work in the UK. Sackers is also a fun place to work and we have a special committee which organises events, spontaneous treats and our summer party.
In one sentence, what makes it different from other law firms?
We are the only firm that is geared up to meet all the needs of the pensions industry.
Finally, what do you think the next half a century has in store for Pensions and the wider legal sector?
Change... There will definitely be more of that! I think we will see the gradual run off of final salary schemes but that will take time. On the flip side, there will be more defined contribution arrangements. This area has been less strictly regulated so there will be increasing regulation for both providers and trusts to deal with. Also, the conventional boundaries between pensions, ISAs and savings are being broken down so that too will shift things in a big way. Put it this way, if we chat again in 50 years’ time I won’t be describing Sackers as being a ‘pensions firm’, it’ll be a ‘savings firm’ depending - of course - on what structures are in place.