Fit for the job

Robin Spencer isn’t the type of man to give himself an easy ride – sorting out the Equitable debacle for work, and for fun running across the Sahara


There are few City lawyers whose feet I feel I know as intimately as those of Robin Spencer.

Well, actually, if I’m being completely honest, and just in case my mother is reading this, I have yet to make the acquaintance of any feet belonging to City lawyers. That may mark me out as being sheltered in the extreme, but it’s the way I prefer it, thank you very much.

This page has never dealt with the subject before, so the Lovells partner who led the team working on the Equitable Life compromise deal is breaking new ground. Perhaps it should be flagged up on the cover as ‘Exclusive: Spencer reveals all about his feet’, in the manner that OK! magazine trumpets David Beckham revealing his new haircut/ house/pasta dish.

To be honest, Spencer’s feet is not a great topic of conversation if you have a weak stomach. I’m sure they are perfectly lovely normally, but after finishing the Marathon des Sables nearly four years ago, they were slabs of raw meat.

The Marathon des Sables, for those not in the know, is a 145-mile race across the Sahara – on foot. Now, nothing in that sentence would tempt me to even fleetingly consider entering, but Spencer decided that he wanted to take part after reading a Daily Telegraph article on the train.

The piece was about an entrant named Chris Moon, who finished the race despite having lost a leg and a hand in a landmine explosion.

“At the time I was 39 and had spent a lot of years working, doing things with my mind. I hadn’t kept particularly fit,” Spencer admits, adding that he was in fact about two and a half stone overweight. “My father lost his arms in the war, Chris Moon lost a forearm and a leg, and I just thought if that guy can do that, I, being able-bodied, ought to have a crack as well.”

So he went down to the newsagents to pick up a copy of Runner’s World, rang the editor to get a contact for the race organisers and started a year-long training programme, which saw him at the end of it three stone lighter and a hell of a lot fitter.

“It’s billed as the toughest challenge on earth, and physically you have to be fairly fit to run it and you have to be fairly mentally tough,” understates Spencer, who I think it is fair to say does not really look the Superman type.

His wife, he says, was “surprised” at his decision. All credit to her for not immediately concluding that her husband had lost his mind.

And Spencer has just completed another gruelling marathon (number 54 in the book of lame journalistic links, by the way). He led the team charged by Equitable Life to find a deal under Section 425 of the Companies Act 1985 that would save the mutual giant.

Just over a week ago, he received the news that the compromise deal had been passed by the High Court, which had also refused permission to appeal, so hopefully the long and exhausting saga is now over for Spencer.

Section 425 allows a company to effect a compromise or an arrangement with its creditors, which must be approved by the court, as well as a meeting of each class of creditor, which must approve the measure by 75 per cent. This is Spencer’s stock in trade.

In the case of Equitable Life, the compromise involved trying to persuade holders of guaranteed annuity return (GAR) policies to give up the GAR part in return for an increase in the value of their policies. So far, so tricky, as no one likes to give up things for the greater good. But try factoring in the 58 different types of GAR leading to the same number of classes to be represented and considered.

Oh, and traditionally, Equitable Life sold policies to the professions, ie those who earn their livings by reading the small print. So such customers cannot be fobbed off by some cobbled together plan and a handful of record tokens.
Around half of those fellow partners that you share lifts with have Equitable Life policies, as do you.

And lastly, you have until the beginning of March this year to get this compromise passed to claim the £250m prize from Halifax, which bought Equitable’s assets last year and promised the extra money if a solution to the GAR problem could be found.

But the team of 30 at Lovells kept slogging away and eventually came up with a scheme. Then disaster struck – the non-GAR policyholders, who until that point had just sat quietly smug while they watched the GAR holders work themselves up, decided to sue, alleging they had been mis-sold policies. Nicholas Warren QC started to look into whether they had a case – and Equitable Life faced yet another huge bill for legal expenses.

So how did Spencer cope when news of the potential claims came in? He calmly replies that one has to deal with these things professionally. I’m sure he did, just as I deal professionally when a front page story falls apart in front of my eyes an hour before deadline. That is, if your definition of professional includes torrents of abuse hurled at no one in particular and kicking the metaphorical cat.

Especially as the Equitable work has been his sole focus for the past year – at times he was working 110-hour weeks.

“I was working every Saturday, every Sunday, going through the night, sleeping under a blanket at the printers. There were a couple of low moments at three or four in the morning sometimes,” admits Spencer, who wants us to believe that, after all that, he greeted the non-GAR news with a quiet tut.

One particular low point came, he says, at the premier of the Harry Potter film. He, just like 80 per cent of Dads in the country, had promised to take his kids to see it. The night before had been an all-nighter, then he left the office to trundle back to Hemel Hempstead where he saw the film, before returning to work throughout the following night. You can see how turning your feet into mince across the desert might be good training for the Equitable job.

“Mental stamina is very important for a job as a City solicitor,” says Spencer, comparing the two slogs. “Being alert for a long period of time, knowing that you have got to keep going on. You plan it and then you implement whatever you have planned, and hopefully you have success at the end of the day; but the critical thing is planning it.”

Spencer has not always been a City solicitor – in fact, he trained as a barrister, but failed to get a tenancy after being called, and then the money ran out.

So he went in-house at Customs & Excise, where he took the infamous boozy hack Jeffrey Bernard to court for running an illegal book in his local, The Coach and Horses. There was another case, Spencer remembers with a smile, brought against a man who set up a pub in his house selling his home brew for 25p a pint. His defence, that he was providing a service to the unemployed, did not go down a storm with the magistrates, who struggled to keep straight faces.

When Margaret Thatcher’s UK saw people moving out of the public service into private enterprise, Spencer followed and joined Durrant Piesse, which eventually merged to become Lovell White Durrant. While at the firm he was offered a secondment to Bermuda for a year to work at Appleby Spurling & Kempe. While there he worked on a big liquidation. But it wasn’t the work that saw him stay on for an extra year – he fell in love with the girl next door, who eventually became his wife.

So, he explains, going to Bermuda brought two big benefits to him – first his wife, and second a new specialisation in insurance insolvency work.

Unfortunately, for the last few months, the latter has meant Spencer has seen very little of the former. But just hours after receiving the judgment, Spencer rectified that by flying off on a well-deserved holiday. No GAR holders and no sand in his shoes this time – he was off skiing.
Robin Spencer
Partner
Lovells