Back to top
Article

Stories from the other side of the desk

1 October 03

Profiles of solicitors who have switched to a business career

by Roger Mackenzie

While Scots lawyers were traditionally known as “men of business”, anecdotal evidence suggests that comparatively few have made the transition into businesses beyond law. In contrast with accountants, who have long been viewed as capable of making an easy transition into running companies or offering consultancy services, even corporate lawyers have tended to be confined to the legal box.

But with those like Ian Bankier at Burn Stewart Distillers and Mac Mackie at Mackies Ice Cream, showing that former lawyers can run successful companies, maybe the stock of the Scottish solicitor is rising in the business community at large.

Having worked as a corporate lawyer at Burness, McGrigor Donald, Semple Fraser, and as Head of Legal Services at the Clydesdale Bank, Alan Stewart set out to make use of his years in corporate law in a “fairly wide ranging business consultancy”.

“As a corporate lawyer you are always working with business people and trying to put together a corporate deal, often with both parties trying to reach a common corporate end. You get close to businesses and I think in the end I wanted to cross that line into actually being the businessman rather than just advising them.”

According to Stewart, it’s not uncommon for corporate lawyers who are doing more and more deals eventually to want to find themselves sitting on the other side of the fence.

In Stewart’s case, he tried it first by joining the Clydesdale Bank. “That was a phenomenal experience and learning curve. Yes, you are still a lawyer but you are being asked to make personal decisions.”

For Stewart it was less that he no longer enjoyed being a lawyer, more that he wanted to be involved in taking a view on whether the price of an acquisition was right or a less than perfect access road was acceptable.

Now, as a business consultant he has found a role “somewhere in between the professional adviser and the businessman”. With one current client, who is close to retirement and pondering selling the family business, he has been able to have a discussion about the emotional aspects of selling a business that has been in the family for three generations, and which his son may not now take over.

“I think if I was sitting there with a card saying ‘Alan Stewart, lawyer’, I would not have been able to have that discussion.”

But if firms claim to offer that added value to clients, why can’t they have that conversation?

For Stewart the only way he could see of getting out that box was to give up being a lawyer. Other options could involve setting up the sort of business consultancy arm developed by Bishops. Stewart maintains that lawyers need to find a way to capture a market whereby rather than clients going to see them just to find out how to do an acquisition, they should be asking why they should do it and what sort of acquisition would be good for their business.

Though the fall-out from Enron may have offered lawyers opportunities to capitalise on markets vacated by the accountants, Stewart suspects that natural caution may prevail and lawyers will be more inclined to stick to core legal services.

“Years ago lawyers were known as men of business, and they seem to have moved away from that. I think people find it frustrating that lawyers will say on the one hand there is that, and on the other there is that, and what people really want is the bit that says here is what we think you should do.

“Any lawyer who has been in practice for a while has got the most amazing experience and breadth of situations they will have dealt with. I think the reason many of them don’t cross the line is a fear of being sued.”

Since embarking on his life beyond law, he has been surprised at the kind of things he has been asked to become involved in, which he would never have been asked to do as a lawyer.

“That’s not because of the firm I was involved in. It would not have mattered where I was - it was the role I was playing which was a business card marked lawyer.”

His new venture, Icon Business Solutions aims to assist companies in getting more from existing clients.

“The lawyer/client relationship is quite different from the client/accountant relationship in that every year you have got to have a tax return to do, but the lawyer is maybe not at the forefront of the client’s mind. Going out and chatting to clients may not be chargeable time and may be seen as a waste by some solicitors, but if you safeguard the relationship, when they come to sell their factory and turn it into a supermarket, you will hopefully be in a position to get that business.”

Sandy McEwen, meanwhile, has retained his links with Tods Murray by means of a consultancy post and is adamant that after 20 years he had no sense of being disillusioned with the law.

After four years as managing partner, building up the firm’s Glasgow office he had an approach from a client. That client was WM Johnston & Co Engineers Ltd, a gasket manufacturer, based in the south side of Glasgow, with branches in Inverness and the Midlands and healthy exports to South East Asia and Eastern Europe.

“Through advising the company I was aware of the structure and nature of the business. They were looking at the succession plan and what we ended up doing was effectively a management buy out. I joined the board as director and company secretary and to an extent I think the family saw me as custodian for their interests.”

For McEwen, there are parallels with Tods Murray. The company has a similar turnover and number of employees.

“A lot of the stuff that is on my desk today is quite familiar in that I am dealing with property issues, pensions, claims, contracts, all things I have dealt with throughout my legal career. But I am probably getting more stimulation out of the other aspects of the business, looking at problems on the manufacturing side with the board and external consultants and advisers.”

As an adviser to many different types and sizes of business, McEwen says he brings to his new role a “considerable amount of insight into running a business”.

“The challenge for me is to use and apply that experience in the field of manufacturing”.

Does he agree that lawyers sometimes fall short when it comes to providing the sort of added value advice sought by clients looking for something to set their legal advice apart?

“I think lawyers who are most valued by their clients are those who firstly can identify with the problem in the commercial context and not just the legal context, and through experience of transactions, provide legal advice within a commercial context.”

Then of course, there’s the option of starting your own business, as illustrated by Scottish Web Design founder Alan Davidson, Having designed the website for his former firm Rollo Davidson McFarlane in 1997, he was soon approached to do sites for the likes of Discovery Point in Dundee and Glamis Castle. By 1999 he was running a business and reducing his legal work, which he eventually gave up at the end of that year.

With now over 100 clients including 13 solicitor firms, he’s proof that you don’t have to have been a corporate or commercial lawyer to possess good business nous. For Davidson, a former court solicitor specialising in family law and reparation, being a member of the profession helps in understanding the needs of his legal clients, but is also of use more generally.

“My background as a solicitor does carry some kudos - clients feel they can place trust in me, and I also have a good grounding in the things that are important to businesses. I don’t give legal advice, but I can often point out areas where clients should seek advice, such as copyright or distance selling regulations.

“I’ve not regretted leaving the profession for an instant. I now work from home and enjoy a much improved lifestyle”.