The need to build a brand identity was just one of the issues discussed at this year's Sifa conference, says Ian Muirhead. Ian Muirhead is managing director of Sifa. The theme underlying this year's Solicitors for Independent Financial Advice (Sifa) City of London Conference, which was attended by a record 154 delegates, was the synergy between legal and financial services.
Law Society secretary general Jane Betts opened the proceedings by expressing the society's support for firms' financial services initiatives.
She referred to the role of its new standing working party on the subject and cited a number of typical success stories in which solicitors specialising in trust, tax, probate, litigation and matrimonial work had benefited their clients and themselves by encompassing the financial dimension in their work.
Reference was also made to the importance of financial advice in estate agency work, and representatives of the profession in Scotland were again present to provide input.
Mike Tildesley, marketing director of Prudential Assurance, drew attention to the potential for solicitors to impinge upon the public consciousness by building a brand identity for their one-stop-shop legal and financial service based on accessibility, quality of advice and trustworthiness.
The firms which failed to recognise and respond to changing consumer needs, he said, were the ones which would lose out in the shake-up now taking place in the legal market.
The issue of multidisciplinary practices (MDPs) was discussed. In my capacity as conference chairman, I told delegates how the importance of facilitating the provision of MDPs from within solicitors' practice had been a central point in Sifa's representations to the Treasury on the operation of the new regime for financial services regulation, initially code-named Newro and announced last Tuesday as the Financial Services Authority.
The interaction between tax and financial planning was a recurring topic in the conference's workshop sessions.
Pensions developments were covered, both in a technical briefing and as the central question in a mock divorce mediation, conducted by Robin Ellison of Eversheds.
The roles of the unhappy couple and their respective solicitors were played out on the conference stage. All delegates had been sent advance copies of briefing papers outlining the facts from the standpoint of each of the five participants.
They were asked to complete voting cards indicating their opinion of the likely outcome. At the conclusion of the mediation, a prize of £1,000 of unit trusts was presented by fund managers Guinness Flight Hambro to the winning delegate, Alistair Connell of Buss Murton, Tunbridge Wells.
Another highlight of the day was a "face the press" question-and-answer session, in which financial journalist Lorna Bourke posed questions to a team of three prominent fund managers.
The topics that Bourke covered included: the concealment of charges within open-ended investment companies; the effect of the Government's proposed Individual Savings Accounts on Personal Equity Plans; the benchmarking of investment performance; and the effect on the financial services market of the incursion of high street retailers.
Bourke also took part in a lively debate from the floor on the reasons why solicitors, with the natural advantages which they enjoy, had not already made a greater impact on the financial services market.
The conference was noteworthy for the buoyant and convivial atmosphere among delegates, for many of whom it was a reunion.
There was however a genuine feeling of regret on the part of those who were aware that this was to be the last public appearance of Stuart Bushell as deputy head of the Law Society's monitoring unit, who over the years has done as much as anyone to promote financial services within the Law Society. Stuart is leaving to take up an important appointment outside the profession.