Behind the unassuming Georgian frontage in a genteel part of Edinburgh which was once home to Sir Walter Scott, is a bespoke information technology system which plays an integral part in the management of £180 million of investment funds.
Murray Beith Murray WS was established in Edinburgh in 1849, and like other Scottish law firms has developed as a practice where the lawyers are men (and women) of business as well as advisers on the law.
Murrays partner Ruthven Gemmell, who heads the financial services practice at the firm, explains that in the 19th century Scottish lawyers were prominent in the creation and management of investment trusts. A number of well-known Scottish investment management groups developed from firms of lawyers involved in this way. In this century, the strong financial tradition continues with over a third of UK investment trust assets managed in Scotland.
The difference in financial services provided by law firms north and south of the border is reflected in the numbers of firms authorised by the Securities Investment Board (SIB) to carry out financial services business.
Originally, 750 firms in England and Wales were registered, but since the Law Society south of the border brought in the formal qualifications required under the SIB's rules at the end of last year, only 260 have continued financial services business. In contrast, in Scotland, 650 law firms (57 per cent of the membership) have been authorised by the Law Society of Scotland to carry on as much as 49 per cent of their business in financial services.
Chair of Solicitors for Financial Advice (Sifa) Ian Muirhead, who has seen the Murrays operation, says: “Murrays is a prime example of the way in which the Scots play financial services – namely, as an integral part of the overall professional practice. From that point of view, the firm and Gemmell are able to represent both the Association of Solicitor Investment Managers (Asim) and Sifa in Scotland.
“Murrays is also conscious of the necessity for lawyers to be aware of all aspects of financial services, from investor protection to pensions, and it is raising that awareness.”
Gemmell is qualified as a solicitor and also trained as an accountant. He says that at Murrays, with about 25 per cent of the firm's staff devoted to financial services, including four who have attained membership of the Securities Institute, commitment to financial areas of practice is well demonstrated. Added to that is the pioneering move to take on IT specialists to write software tailor-made for the firm's financial services.
And according to the Asim directory, in terms of funds under management, Murrays is the UK's largest solicitor investment manager. And, south of the border, as Cripps Harries Hall partner David Lough says: “Murrays took a giant step among Scottish law firms and it is now being followed by Gillespie MacAndrew in Edinburgh and Thorntons in Dundee .
The sphere of practice of Murrays has also substantially widened recently as it now manages the quoted investment portfolio of a listed Venture Capital Trust. Externally the firm is also a founder and shareholder of LawShare, a stockbroking firm for solicitors.
The traditional role has been for solicitors to know their clients and their clients' business requirements. In the field of financial services, this also involved providing 'best advice' coupled with lists of investments provided by the stockbroker. But the broking firms brought in changes .
Gemmell says: “It is not fair that the client should have to pay for overlapping advice, and the next move, which benefits clients, was to take the management of funds in-house with an information technology system to produce benchmarks which will be integrated with complete financial management, including offshore trusts.”
Essentially the firm provides one-stop shopping. It dispenses with the need to have a different accountant and fund manager. The IT system can call up basic information about the client's investment portfolio and tax position, as well as research from some of London's leading investment houses and on-line information systems from Reuters and Extel.
Gemmell also says that the firm provides “a good solid honest dealing service, with good prices 'within the strip'.” He adds that it ensures the firm is booted up and equipped for the next millennium.
But just as Murrays retains its genteel exterior, Gemmell says it still prides itself on the personal touch. The IT system, which is being converted to Windows, is a service improving tool like any other.