Kent firm pushes ahead

Michael Kavanagh

While most law firms are still contemplating taking their first step in providing financial services, Thanet firm Walmsley & Barnes is starting its next five-year plan.

Ewan Cameron, compliance manager at the firm, is into his sixth year developing a financial services operation for the six-partner firm, which he says adds to the firm's other strictly legally related business.

Cameron spent several years with a Canterbury-based insurance brokers' firm before joining Walmsley & Barnes 1988. The firm has four offices covering the Thanet area of Kent.

The financial services centre includes an agency for the Kent Reliance Building Society. "It suits us very well. We are a small legal firm, with a small local building society," he says. The Broadstair financial services offers a high street service and about two thirds of the business is externally generated.

The firm provides general insurance and "the normal range of financial services" in terms of packaged retail products and, importantly, portfolio management. The unit has four staff – two support, one general insurance specialist and Cameron.

The office, which is dedicated to financial services, was opened in 1990 when the firm's decision to commit to financial services seemed to have paid off. "The firm took a positive decision from the outset," he says. "If lawyers are involved in financial services, they have to do it properly. The biggest mistake is to get into it on a 'dabble' basis."

"The department, he says, does not just make a cash contribution to the firm. "It has also been a source of new business and as well, we think, been of value in re-enforcing the relationship with clients.

"Legal work is often where constant contact with clients is not practical or economic. But the regular servicing of general insurance and financial services need is a natural part of the

firm's work." Pensions work has brought corporate clients to the firm for legal work.

Now Cameron is working on overhauling the operation, which involves it being "unbundled into four business cells".

The retail package life and pensions business, general insurance business and portfolio management operation will operate separately, with a switch from advisory to discretionary management.

A fourth division is a fee-based advice service to advise on lines of work where commission cannot be expected to provide a service.

"For all the consultations we have done, in every instance we have advised them to stay where they are," he says. Good advice, but no commission fee.

A switch to discretionary portfolio management will mean a major shift for the way business is done. But Cameron is convinced the firm, which handles portfolios with a total value in the "multi-millions", can mix it with the big boys.

Packaged products and unit trusts, says Cameron, are arguably better with smaller investment amounts. But the increase in typical management charges over the past five years convinces Cameron that his firm can deliver better to clients – but on a discretionary rather than advisory basis.