The words “overworked” and “lawyer” are so often used together these days that they should be entered in the dictionary as one. But with a schedule like that of Stephen Gale, the word “hectic” should be added. What’s more, he thrives on it. Last Monday was a year to the day since he joined Herbert Smith as head of corporate recovery, which he combines with being the deputy vice-president of the Society of Practitioners of Insolvency (SPI).
Gale heralds from Blackpool but “switched roses” in 1976 to go to Sheffield University and has lived in Yorkshire ever since, travelling from London to his Wakefield home at weekends so that he can be with his wife and two children.
This arrangement, he says, “makes for an interesting life, and being on my own during the week gives me a very focused week for professional responsibilities”. With another child due in July, would his wife not like to see more of him? “I’ve been doing this for six years, so she’s used to it by now,” he says.
Gale has worked in insolvency since qualifying in 1981. He was a partner at Hammond Suddards from 1987, moving from Yorkshire in 1992 to set up the firm’s London office before being recruited by Herbert Smith as the big hitter to head the new department.
As if he is not busy enough, Gale will become president of the SPI next year, only the second lawyer to do so. He is forthright in putting the case for his sometimes misunderstood profession. He stresses the changed role of practitioners since the last recession, from a means of last resort for creditors to providing advice to ward off formal insolvency, the so-called “business rescue culture”. Hence the tag “corporate recovery” rather than what Gale calls “the I word”.
Insolvency practitioners are now advising ailing companies at a much earlier stage of corporate recovery. In addition, they are advising company directors as well as creditors and using “a much larger bag of tricks”. One of the big issues for the coming year and for his presidency is how the profession defines and structures itself.
Gale wants to give the various strands of the insolvency profession – lawyers, accountants, academics and practitioners, both small and large firms – a unified voice.
And he shrugs off the threat of accountancy firms as they encroach on the work of insolvency lawyers. “It’s a long way off, if indeed it ever happens, that those legal teams within accounting firms are sufficiently specialised and experienced to be used by an accounting firm as their legal adviser on an insolvency,” he says.
With the economy slowing, Gale believes insolvency departments will be busier, but he insists the profession takes no pleasure in others’ misfortune. “We are not parasitic, gleefully bayoneting the wounded. Huge amounts of skill go into turning things around, most of it well outside the public domain,” he says.
“That’s the irony, because most of the work is discreet and can never be used as positive evidence. It’s an aspect of the profession you have to live with” – as any overworked insolvency lawyer will tell you.
Society of Practioners of Insolvency