SRA board responds to City ire with big firm appointments

The newly appointed board of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is littered with City stars, highlighting a change in direction for the SRA, which has come under fire for failing to address the concerns of major commercial firms.

The board, chaired by lawyer Peter Williamson, is dominated by people with public sector backgrounds, with just two lawyers having City experience: Richard Taylor, a former CMS Cameron McKenna partner, and Andrew Long, who was with Pinsent Masons until 2005.

The injection of City lawyers onto the board comes at a time when the SRA will be forced to consider a Law Society-commissioned report on the future of regulation.

The Hunt Review, which will report in September, is likely to support calls for a new SRA unit to regulate firms with City clients. This comes after Lord David Hunt commissioned former Ministry of Justice civil servant Nick Smedley to conduct a subsection of his report. When Smedley published his findings in March it proved damning for the SRA.

“The gap between the regulator’s skill set and the work of the corporate sector is too wide to enable the SRA to act with confidence and competence,” Smedley stated (The Lawyer, 30 March).

The regulator has faced fierce ­criticism for failing to properly regulate City firms, instead concentrating on high street firms.

Yet it finds itself in a tricky situation: due to resource constraints the SRA is forced to concentrate on those firms that are perceived to be more problematic, but at the same time the City demands to be better regulated.

Responding to the Hunt Review in July the City of London Law Society warned Hunt that he should not ­”underestimate the sense of grievance we feel in continuing to subsidise the regulation of other firms while the ­regulation of our firms is not being ­conducted in a manner appropriate to our business and our clients”.

The appointment of a City-heavy board will go some way towards appeasing those critics. As will the intention of the new board to open a London office (see page 3). Chairman of the City of London Law Society David McIntosh QC comments: “We look forward to working with the new SRA board, which we’re pleased to note includes members with experience of working within, and instructing, major corporate law firms.”
Charles Plant, chair of the new board and a Herbert Smith consultant, says: “The City firms are well-represented on the new SRA board. It’s encouraging that, for the first time, they’ve chosen to engage with the SRA by putting forward experienced practitioners for board membership.” The board is dominated by ­competition and litigation lawyers.

This includes Norton Rose head of competition Martin Coleman, who ­earlier this year advised the Department of Media, Culture and Sport on the ­competition issues arising out of its review of public service broadcasting. Former Slaughter and May competition chief Malcolm Nicholson, who retired from the firm in May to join the Competition Commission, and who last year advised BHP Billiton on the competition aspects of its £40bn bid for rival miner Rio Tinto, has also been signed up.

The pair are joined by former ­Linklaters head of advocacy Mark Humphries, who left in July to launch his own boutique, and who most recently advised energy giant Centrica on its £182m claim against consultancy group Accenture. In addition, and highlighting the wider impact of the economic ­downturn, is Denton Wilde Sapte ­litigation partner and large-scale fraud specialist Cindy Leslie. Leslie was part of the team that advised on the Equitable Life test case back in 2000.

To counterbalance the City element the selection panel has appointed Lucy Winskell, a partner at Newcastle-based Sintons. Winskell, a regulatory lawyer, is a former president of the ­Newcastle Upon Tyne Law Society.

An in-house perspective is provided by United Utilities company secretary and general counsel Tom Keevil, who joined the company’s 60-strong legal team in January 2008. Keevil was ­previously general counsel of tobacco company ­Gallaher Group, prior to which he spent 10 years with Simmons & Simmons.

The only legal professional to have been selected for a second term is Yvonne Brown, a founding member and former chair of the Black Solicitors ­Network. Brown, who is a legal ­consultant, chairs the board’s scrutiny committee and is a member of the ­compliance committee. In addition, the panel has selected six lay members. Plant played an ­instrumental part in its selection.

If the regulator fails to respond to the demands of the City, the Legal Services Board will face calls for a new regulator to be established, one that would ­regulate City firms. But by appointing this board Plant and his selection committee have shown that they are listening to the demands of the corporate profession and are willing to communicate.