Monday Interview: Magnus Swanson, Law At Work

Magnus Swanson, right, with Donald MacKinnon and Jane Wright
Magnus Swanson, right, with Donald MacKinnon and Jane Wright
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IT’S been several turbulent years now in the Scottish legal sector, as industry veteran Magnus Swanson knows only too well. Firms including Ross Harper, Semple Fraser and most recently Tods Murray have been pulled down by the undertow of a deflated market and intense pressure on pricing from clients.

Other names, such as Biggart Baillie, McGrigors and Dundas & Wilson, have disappeared as firms bailed into the merger lifeboat.

Swanson believes things might be starting to settle down “a bit”, but the former chief executive of Maclay Murray & Spens says underlying constraints remain.

“The challenges around the Scottish scene are probably as much as anything to do with the size of the market for legal services, particularly full-scale legal services, being constrained,” he says. “I would be concerned about the prospects for growth in the Scottish market.”

That’s why the chairman and majority owner of specialist consultancy Law At Work (LAW) is scanning horizons beyond the Central Belt. As he describes it, “one eye looks north to Aberdeen and Inverness”, while the other is fixed on possibilities to the south.

Earlier this month, LAW reported a near 50 per cent rise in pre-tax profits for the financial year to the end of May. Turnover was up 12 per cent at £2 million, while profits increased to £371,000 from £248,000 previously.

Six months into the current financial year, things are going “reasonably well”. “We are anticipating the rate of growth will be a little less than it was last year, but it will be another year of growth,” Swanson says.

LAW provides advice on health and safety, employment and human resources to employers on a fixed-fee basis. It has about 250 clients on its books, roughly 20 per cent of whom are based in England – one of the factors ­behind its continuing growth.

They are served from the firm’s ­offices in Glasgow and Edinburgh, which between them employ 29 people. Should demand warrant it, LAW might open an office in England, but there are no definite plans on that front.

“As a small, light-of-foot provider of particular services, we can find clients in the south,” Swanson says. “Anything we do will be led by client activity, rather than setting up an office and saying, ‘Let’s see what happens’.”

Born in Bangor, North Wales, Swanson’s family came to Scotland when he was less than a year old. His father, a nuclear physicist, moved the family to Caithness following the opening of the Dounreay nuclear power station.

There was also a family farm where his mother bore the brunt of responsibility for rearing beef cattle. The young Swanson’s first job was as a farm hand, and though he claims to have enjoyed it, he says he never wanted to farm for a living.

What he didn’t know, however, was exactly what he did want to do. He considered a variety of possibilities after he was accepted to Edinburgh University, and, pressed to choose a path, he finally settled on law.

Apart from a stint in 1986-7 with a major firm in New York, Swanson spent the bulk of his career with Maclay ­Murray & Spens, and was chief ­executive from 2003 to mid-2011. It was during this period that the firm, looking to diversify its business, set up LAW as an operating subsidiary. Swanson chaired LAW from the outset, and remained in that post even after deciding in 2012 that his career needed a change in direction.

He retired from Maclays, but soon after landed the job of chairman at Golden Charter, the Glasgow-based pre-planning funeral company.

At about the same time, LAW was preparing to go it alone. The business had “proved to have some legs”, Swanson says, but it was seen to be eating into traditional business at Maclays.

“There was that tension, and I am sure ultimately that tension led to the business being sold,” he says.

“It is much happier as a stand-alone operation.”

Swanson joined LAW chief executive Jane Wright and legal services director Donald MacKinnon in buying out Maclays’ 80-plus per cent stake, with the chairman taking a majority interest. It allows him to keep a hand in the legal world yet still have time for other interests, such as the NICE regeneration group in Nairn, where Swanson and his wife, Sheriff Alayne Swanson, have owned a holiday home for the past eight years.

Although “by no means a leading green campaigner”, Swanson also recently agreed to chair a company looking to cut down on taxi emissions in London.

Headed by former oil and gas executive Alistair Clark, eConnect Cars is a central London chauffeur service with a twist: all of its cars are entirely powered by electricity. It currently has a fleet of 15 high-end Nissan LEAFs, though other models will be added as they hit the market.

“I have never actually driven one,” Swanson admits. “I’m not insured to drive the fleet, but I have driven a ­hybrid, so I guess I have been under electric power.”

30-second CV

Born: Bangor, North Wales, 25 April, 1958

Raised: In Caithness

First job: Farm hand, beef cattle

Ambition while at school: ‘It wasn’t to be a lawyer, that’s for sure. That just came along.’

Car: Mercedes C32 AMG

Kindle or book? Book

Can’t live without: ‘My wife, but in terms of more mundane matters, I like my leisure time, whether it is golfing or skiing.’

Favourite place: ‘I like Paris. It is just good memories. I like the French approach to life, and I like the food and drink.’

What makes you angry? ‘Bad service and jobsworth behaviour.’

What inspires you? ‘Human spirit – people are often very remarkable.’

Best thing about your job: ‘The fact that I have reached the stage where I work with three different businesses playing slightly different roles in each.’

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