The work of an amicable man
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Jonathan Seres aims to bring clarity to the confused in the murky waters of pension law; Fennell Betson
Pensions law as an area of activity has everything going for it. Economics, demographics and Maxwell have all spurred the politicians into action.
The 154-section new Pensions Bill is a direct response to Maxwell's plundering of u400 million of pensions money, says Jonathan Seres, senior partner of Sacker & Partners, the City-based pensions firm. But it also underpins the country's approach to funded pension provision.
Seres has been involved in pensions law since 1967 when he was articled to Harry Sacker, after finishing at Oxford University and the College of Law. Then, pensions was an offshoot of trust law and the London firm's senior partner was a rare bird with a foot in both commercial and trust areas. This was the foundation on which the firm's pensions reputation was built.
Then, as now, Seres got involved advising on the wording for scheme membership booklets, recalling that they read like acts of Parliament. Nowadays, it is often a question of working with a designer to make them accessible.
Seres declares: "I had two interests that brought me into the law. One was the liberty of the individual, the other was clarity for the confused."
Though that may sound pompous, he can claim he has kept to his vocation as good pensions do guarantee individuals' economic freedom and few areas of law are as opaque.
There has been no shortage of material to work on. He qualified in 1971; pensions legislation commenced in earnest in 1973 and he has not looked back. Seres started writing a pensions practice guide for Oyez in 1979, and the publication is now more than double in size and set to grow further with the new bill.
"The bill aims to provide security of pensions rights with a compensation scheme if a burglar still beats the system. The main downside is the burden placed on trustees, he says. "They are rarely professionals and will now risk penalties when they blow their noses."
Seres was made senior partner in 1985 at the age of 40, following Sacker, long regarded as a guru of pensions law. Much of his mantle has fallen on Seres' shoulders. But Seres has combined this with a commercial flair. "It is a happy combination," says Nicholson Graham & Jones partner Ian Pittaway.
"He has amazing energy and enthusiasm for the firm and pensions law," says fellow Sackers partner Mark Greenlees.
He presided over the unusual exercise of "taking the firm niche" to being a pensions-only practice, which involved downsizing from 18 to nine partners.
The firm had always had a commercial side alongside its strong pensions department and accepted there was not going to be a significant amount of cross-fertilisation. The size of non-pensions matters handled often meant they were not profitable. "But we had all worked together as colleagues for a long time and we did not question that," says Seres.
But some of the partners on the commercial side proposed that the firm have an in-depth look at itself. "It was instantly pointed out that there was no way of forecasting where that might end up. That was readily acknowledged," says Seres.
Seres says it did not take long to identify that the general practice did not fit well with the specialist one and the decision was taken to go niche.
The exercise was done with the help of management consultants and the non-specialists transferred elsewhere five years ago before the recession. "We spent a year down-sizing, but without any blood."
Sackers draws its clients not just from Plcs, but from public authorities, unions and charities. "We have the critical mass to respond to new developments as they arise," he says. The firm has handled a lot of high profile pensions work, such as the Coloroll European case.
"Since going niche we have had a regular flow of referral work." The move to the City last summer to spanking new offices just by St Paul's also helped referrals from other City-based practices, he claims.
Seres has always been active in the Association of Pension Lawyers, being one of the founding committee in 1984 and chair from 1985 to 1987. Pittaway says: "In those two years he helped the new association get established and increased its prestige through the senior people he knew."
Seres is now the group's liaison person with the EU in Brussels. "We see a growth in cross-border pensions advice." Maxwell also made Brussels aware of the need for regulation.
Inside and outside the firm, his fellow lawyers speak of his sincerity. Nabarro Nathanson pension partner John Quarrel, praises the wide range of his interests outside pensions.
But despite being long in patience, Seres is not someone to tolerate fools gladly. An apocryphal story is told that at the end of one conference, Seres was patiently explaining to a questioner the point he had been making in his talk. The questioner's angry reaction was to tell him not to be patronising. "How clever of you to spot that," was the reported response.