Ian Pittaway: Sacker & Partners

Ian Pittaway, senior partner at Sacker & Partners, the City’s coolest pension specialist, says it is the very arcane nature of the firm’s work that means it can flourish

Sacker & Partners” /> Pensions law, let’s face it, does not sit at the racier end of the legal spectrum. Far from it, in fact. But within the niche world of pensions lawyers one firm stands out as being positively cool: Sacker & Partners.

Senior partner Ian Pittaway, who is nearing the end of his three-year term at the helm of the firm, may have fallen into the pensions world by chance, but for him there has been no looking back.

“I was a tax partner at Nicholson Graham & Jones [which merged with Kirkpatrick & Lockhart to form K&L Gates] and they didn’t have anyone to do pensions,” he recalls. “They asked a number of people to do it and I was about the fourth person they approached. For a couple of years I did tax and pensions. On Sunday mornings I would read the tax journals, have lunch, then read the pensions journals in the afternoon. After a while I thought I had to get rid of one.”

And the tax world’s loss was the pensions world’s gain. In 1996 Pittaway, by then head of pensions at Nicholsons, took his team to Sackers at the same moment the firm decided to go niche.

“In the 1990s the partners were advised that they were neither one thing or another so would have to go global, go niche or go bust,” says Pittaway. “All the others went elsewhere and we became fully niche from there.

“I was at Nicholsons for 15 years but it was a cleft stick because the firm didn’t have a strong corporate practice but it was branded as full service. I saw that Sackers had great potential as a specialist in the pensions area.”

Which was prescient indeed. Last financial year the firm, which has 12 equity partners and a deliberate partner to assistant ratio of 1:1, turned over £19.1m, earning itself a place in The Lawyer UK 100 for the first time. Even more impressive, its average profit per equity partner (PEP) figure reached near-magic circle proportions at £874,000, head and shoulders above similarly-sized firms.

In a sense the story of Sackers’ success has been down to the fact that other firms can refer their clients on without fear of losing them. Back in the day, before conflicts were such a major issue, a firm would act for a company as well as its pension fund trustees.

When the young Harry Sacker left Linklaters to set up on his own he encouraged the FTSE 100 clients he worked for to write to the magic circle firm’s then managing partner suggesting Sacker continue doing their pensions work. Oddly enough, the fallout from the Robert Maxwell saga of the early 1990s has also worked in Sackers’ favour.

“People realised that the interests of the company and trustees were not always the same,” explains Pittaway. “Over the years we’ve picked up a lot of those schemes, either through tender or an informal referral. If a partner at Freshfields or Linklaters wants separate pensions advice they know that we’re not going to nick the other work.”

This relationship with other firms has become more formalised in recent years with the establishment of Sackers’ Stolf – services to other law firms – department, which contributes 10 per cent of the firm’s annual revenue, or nearly £2m.

“Some big US firms or corporate boutiques don’t want pensions people on their payroll or don’t need them, but want good people when they do,” says Pittaway. “Generally we act alongside those companies on deals.”

This system can also work in reverse. When Sackers was instructed on the most high-profile pensions issue of 2007 – possibly the most high-profile of the decade – it turned to Ashurst for the corporate side of the deal. Sackers acted for Boots Pension Scheme trustees when they threatened to halt the KKR-led acquisition of Alliance Boots over funding issues.

“Alliance Boots was the first FTSE 100 company to be taken over by private equity,” says Pittaway. “It borrowed heavily against the company to effect the purchase. Most of the time we don’t need to go to other firms but on Alliance Boots we decided we wanted a top corporate firm to work alongside us because some of the financing structures were innovative – no one had seen that amount of leverage.”

With pensions issues becoming ever more important, the workload for firms such as Sackers is certain to increase. Just as well for Pittaway, then, that the firm doesn’t have a traditional management structure.

“We don’t have a managing partner or managing committee – everything is done by committees,” says Pittaway. “That has a fantastic advantage in that it’s inclusive, as most partners sit on a committee of some sort. The disadvantage is that it’s not as effective as having a full-time managing partner. It would be more effective if we had that structure but it means that all partners have a chargeable hours target. I have the same target as everybody else.”

Name: Ian Pittaway
Title: Senior partner
Organisation: Sacker & Partners
Turnover: £19.1m
Ian Pittaway’s CV

1974-77: Hull University, LLB
Work history: 1978-80: Trower Still & Keeling, trainee assistant
1980-81: Trower Still & Keeling, assistant
1981-84: Nicholson Graham & Jones, assistant
1984-96: Nicholson Graham & Jones, partner and head of pensions
1996-2005: Sacker & Partners, partner
2005-present: Sacker & Partners, senior partner