Lawyers, especially pensions lawyers, do not have a user-friendly image. Partly that may be because so far it is largely the Anglo-Saxon legal systems that have employed lawyers to advise on pension systems for employers and scheme managers. And it is true that the trust-law system of those countries seems to demand legal input rather greater than in the continental jurisdictions. But trust law was used in the UK for example since the 1920s for pension arrangements, and the number of lawyers then involved could be counted on one hand. The explosive growth both in the US and the UK in the last 20 years has been due predominantly to the growth in regulation, from (in the UK) about 100 pages in 1970 to around 8,000 pages today. Whether the growth can survive the imminent reduction in corporate pensions provision in the UK very largely due to the unintended consequences of that very regulation is too early to say, but the omens look unattractive.
Just as the Anglo-Saxon lawyers however face a reduction in the call for their services, the introduction of both the European Pensions Directive 2003 and the notion of corporate funded pension provision across most EU states may transform the situation elsewhere. The directive itself is relatively short if not sweet; but its implementation, and the opportunities for cross border arbitrage make it an irresistible honeypot for employers to take advantage of. And now that there is an EU association of pensions regulators, there will need to be an EU approach to taking legal advice.
So if the need for lawyers to advise on pension structures, tax implications and investment management contracts (not to mention issues of pensions and divorce, pensions and employment, pensions and equal treatment) is about to expand, how to choose one?
The continental way seems one of the best. Have a coffee with a few of the better-known ones, ring around a few colleagues to get a feel of who is a ‘black-letter’ lawyers (ie an expert, but more an academic than an adviser) and who has a more commercial approach, who is aware of trends across the EU and the US, and who has a more restricted jurisprudential understanding. And finally who has a more conciliatory approach to dispute resolution than a confrontational one.
There is no shortage of choice, especially in the UK; and like choosing investment managers there is a fashion now of holding beauty parades. Robin Ellison is head of strategic development, pensions, at Pinsents in London