The many hats interview: Stephen Dawson

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Today's Many Hats interview is with Stephen Dawson a consumer finance expert from Shoosmiths.

Chambers & Partners proclaims that Stephen 'is highly knowledgeable. A real professional who is approachable, straightforward and direct'. We'd agree wholeheartedly—unless you ask him to plead in front of a French court. In French. Then he might not be so approachable. Read more about this traumatic incident and much more below:

Please provide a brief bio including your role and current employer (if relevant).

I am a Partner at Shoosmiths LLP. My main area of specialism is in the financial services sector, and consumer finance in particular. When I am trying to be brief, I simply say that 'I draft small-print (but I'm actually quite a nice guy) ... '

How did you end up being a commercial lawyer?

It is often the case that lawyers have little or no choice at the start of their careers, in terms of the experience they get and opportunities that present themselves. I trained in a niche team, at a firm called Lester Aldridge, and so I have done financial services for nearly all of my career.

What type of projects are you working on at the moment?

It's a busy time for financial services lawyers. Our work at the minute is largely based around the change in regulatory supervision from the OFT to the FCA. So, we're fixing problems, filling gaps and gently holding hands.

Describe a memorable moment of your career.

I had the opportunity to spend some time working in Paris during my training contract, on the basis that I also hold a degree in French law. I attended an employment tribunal with a senior partner from the host firm and (without any employment experience or preparation) was asked to present facts on behalf of a client. I remain traumatised to this day.

What makes a lawyer a commercial lawyer?

There are many lawyers in the world but, for me, the difference in being a lawyer and a commercial lawyer is in focusing on the desired outcome from the beginning. This requires (rare) skills like actually listening, placing the legal issues in the context of the commercial situation and often advising on options with different degrees of risk.

Is there a common problem you come across time and time again as a commercial lawyer?

Nowadays, the greatest problem is that everybody uses the word 'urgent' as a basic timing requirement. 24/7 contactability through mobiles, iPads and computers means that advice is too often being required while we are on the move or not ideally situated to pause for thought.

What tips do you have for making legal advice more digestible/commercial for business?

Break the complex language or complicated legislation down into plain English to communicate in basic digestible chunks. That said, I am not a fan of plain English that dilutes the specific meaning of well-established points of law. I wouldn't go as far as saying 'bring back Latin', but I would ask that lawyers are allowed to use language appropriate to the situation.

What advice would you give to someone entering the commercial law arena?

Lawyers entering the market now need to accept that success in law requires more and more effort, time committment and personal compromise (if you want to reach the top). At most simple, my advice to graduates and those entering the profession is to choose an area you like, and do it really well. Stand out from the crowd, and be yourself.

Is the profession doing enough to make lawyers truly commercial?

In reality, the requirement for commerciality comes from clients. So those firms with good relationships with good commercial clients will breed good commercial lawyers. Its all about opportunity.

What could we be doing better to train lawyers working at the sharp end of business and commerce?

Actually being inside the four walls of a business is the best way to understand the issues. Secondments, placements and work experience all really help. To understand how difficult it is to get time (and budget) to instruct lawyers is also a key lesson. Often, businesses will avoid going 'external' because of cost and inconvenience, so that is why I aim to be exceedingly easy to use.

Is there a recent development in commercial law that concerns you?

I am a financial services lawyer, so I am interested in seeing technology play its part in delivering financial services products. At the same time, as technology develops, the volume and complexity of information that we are required to produce for issue to consumers is outrageous. As things stand, there can be no consumer who leaves a bank, car dealer or broker having read and understood all of the paperwork they are given. It needs to change otherwise technology will be defeated.

What are your views on the issues being encountered by lenders, more particularly compensation being given to consumers for only very minor and technical breaches of legislation where there is no detriment?

This refers to situations whereby consumers receive refunds or compensation because of eg a missing word or defective layout of information in statutory documents (annual statements and the like). My own view is that virtually nobody gets everything absolutely correct all of the time. Many errors arise in places where no sane consumer actually explores the detail. As long as the consumer does not suffer financially as a result, and only ends up paying out what they expected to pay out, then many of the negative headlines about the financial services sector could be avoided. Some common sense would be good.

Who in commercial law and/or the law generally do you most admire?

I admire anyone who plays a part in simplifying the issues. I can't remember who said it (maybe, nobody did) but I like the phrase, 'life is complicated. Simplify'.

Which hat is your favourite?

I never wear a hat because my wife and children laugh at me regardless of what I wear. I do admire people who wear hats and actually pull it off to great effect. Maybe I can (finally) answer the question by saying that I like my 'being-a-dad-and-not-a-lawyer' hat. Seems to fit me well.

What do you do to switch off from the day job?

I am not great at switching off during the week. It takes Saturday morning and a view of the ocean (we live by the sea) to achieve switch off.

What is the most worrying trend in providing legal services from a private practice perspective?

The time that we are given to respond to some very complex and convoluted questions. I appreciate that lawyers 'sell time' and 'time is money' but quite seriously, time is much needed to ensure we get things right.

Area of Interest