• Bio: Philippa James is a Partner at Mayer Brown International LLP, one of the largest law practices in the world. She has been a Pensions Lawyer for 20 years and undertakes advisory and documentation work for pension scheme clients of all sizes and advises on all aspects of pensions law and practice. Philippa is a Fellow of the Pensions Management Institute and a PMI Council Member.
  • Role: Pensions Laywer

Philippa James

How I got started

I studied law at university. At that point I had not decided to become a lawyer but thought that it would be an interesting subject to study. (It isn’t essential to study law if you are contemplating a career as a lawyer. If you have a degree you can attend a conversion course later). Looking back I enjoyed my law degree. It also gave me the opportunity to study trust law in some depth, which is still the foundation of pensions law today.

After Law School, I served ‘articles of clerkship’ as it was then called. (now called a ‘training contract’, which is a much clearer description of what it is). During articles, I gained experience of the basics – conveyancing, commercial contracts, divorce and criminal law – not particularly useful for a future career as a pensions lawyer.

An introduction to pensions law

On qualification, I left the world of private practice to go ‘in house’ to what was then the British Gas Corporation.

I was an in-house counsel with British Gas for a number of years, before I got my first introduction to pensions law. Some ladies who were working for British Gas objected to having an earlier retirement age than their male colleagues and wanted to carry on working until 65. This was Foster v British Gas Corporation, one of the first cases considering equalisation of retirement ages for men and women.

I also became involved in dealing with certain pensions issues that arose as a result of the privatisation of British Gas. All of this whetted my appetite for pensions law. In 1988 I returned to private practice and became a Pensions Lawyer with the firm of Rowe & Maw.

Developing my pensions expertise

A few years ago, Rowe & Maw merged with a US firm. The firm has over 500 partners, more than 1,400 lawyers worldwide and a client base including many of the FTSE 100/Fortune 500 companies and global leaders in industries. Our offices are spread far and wide from Berlin to Hong Kong to Washington DC.

The Pensions Group of Mayer Brown International LLP in the UK is a significant core business area of the firm. It comprises seven partners and 19 solicitors, who specialise full-time in day to day pensions advice. In addition there are specialist pensions litigators in the firm’s dispute resolution department. Also within the firm there are experts in employment, tax, financial services law and finance who provide valuable assistance where appropriate. The firm also has pensions expertise in Asia, US and mainland Europe.

What the work involves

The work is challenging and varied. The Pensions Group advises in relation to the pension schemes of many household names. Typically, my work covers advising trustees and also sponsoring employers on a range of issues including:

  • Scheme documentation
  • The impact of legislation on schemes
  • Pension aspects of corporate transactions both in terms of planning and implementation
  • Funding of pension schemes
  • Restructuring of benefits
  • Mergers and demergers of schemes
  • Clearance applications to the Pensions Regulator
  • Administration, investment management and custody agreements
  • Tax simplification
  • Age discrimination.

My typical day would include attending meetings with clients or perhaps attending a trustee meeting. Also, I would talk to clients on the telephone regularly.

I am a Fellow of the Pensions Management Institute (PMI). I served as a PMI council member for several years and also served on the PMI board of examiners. Additionally, I am regularly asked to write articles on the various aspects of pensions law and practice and speak at seminars and conferences.

What does the future hold for the pensions lawyer?

There have been many changes in the Pensions Regulatory framework. Trustees of occupational pension schemes have been given important powers and, as a consequence, even more responsibilities. This is particularly true of trustees of defined benefit schemes. Trustees have assumed the role of ‘pensions creditor’ when there is a funding deficit and inevitably are becoming more and more involved in the corporate activity of sponsoring employers.

There are significant scheme funding requirements. Trustees face the challenge of negotiating with employers the amount calculated to fund scheme liabilities, a statement of funding principles, a schedule of contributions and provisions for recovery from any deficit.

Training

There is an increasing emphasis on training for trustees. They must have knowledge and understanding of pensions and trust law and scheme funding and investments. They must be familiar with scheme documents, deeds, rules and statements of investment and funding principles. To help them with this the regulator has developed a toolkit for trustees’ knowledge and understanding.

Another major challenge for pensions scheme trustees or sponsoring employers is managing risk and addressing scheme deficits. Sponsoring employers and trustees have been considering new ways of managing risk and dealing with deficits, including liability driven investment strategies – incorporating swaps and other derivatives into a structured approach (to control returns and downsize risk) – and alternative asset classes. Our Pensions Group has responded to our clients’ needs for multi-disciplinary and multi-jurisdictional advice in these areas by creating a Pensions Fund Investment Group. This means that pensions lawyers work alongside finance lawyers, financial services lawyers, derivatives and property lawyers to give the required legal advice.

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