NextGen – 17 July 2019

Oscar Hodgson has been spending the first six months of his training contract in the pensions team at Taylor Wessing. We caught up with him on his experience with pensions thus far and demystifying some of the common misconceptions about the industry.

Was pensions an unexpected place to end up?

When I told people that the first six months of my training contract would be in pensions, I was often faced with nothing but quizzical expressions.

“Pensions law… what’s that about? I thought pensions were just for old people? Anyway Oscar, I thought you were training to be a lawyer?” they enquired sarcastically.

I looked back at them slightly perplexed – partly because I was surprised that they had pigeonholed pensions as a concern solely for the older generations, but also because I couldn’t quite put my finger on the link between pensions and law either.

So, what’s all the fuss about?

What I’ve come to realise during my pensions seat is that there are two ways to look at pensions. Either you can lump it in the same category as taxes and National Insurance Contributions (i.e. money you have to pay because the government says so), or you can see pension contributions as a financial investment in your overall future wellbeing.

If you view a pension through a ‘wellbeing’ lens, it isn’t dissimilar from a monthly gym membership, for example, or paying for a part-time course to invest in your ongoing learning and development. And if you’re not on board with my pitch yet, the contributions your employer makes to your pension pot are effectively ‘free’ money!

But why care now if it’s something that can be dealt with later in life?

As we ‘Generation Rent’-ers know all too well, buying our own property is merely a mirage in the distance. Long gone are the days when climbing the rungs of the property ladder was a given course, and even longer gone are the days when receiving a generous final salary pension was fairly common. These days, for most of us at least, we live in a world where managing our long-term finances is more crucial than ever before. Without wanting to tempt fate, it’s highly probable that we’ll live longer than our parents and grandparents, so having a substantial pension pot to fall back on will certainly stand you in good stead later down the line.

Right, ok, so being a pensions lawyer is just telling people to save for their future?

Not necessarily.

Working within the pensions industry has opened my eyes to the immense interconnection between law and social policy, and the huge impact it has on ordinary people’s lives. Important as it is, this doesn’t just mean ensuring the grannies and grandpas have enough money to live off later in life. The role of the pensions lawyer is vast. But essentially, their job is to ensure pension schemes are run smoothly and in accordance with the legal requirements. Yes, it’s a technical area of the law, but the pensions industry is always in the headlines and it never stops moving.

Yes, but isn’t pensions law really technical?

I would be bending the truth slightly if I were to say pensions law isn’t technical. After all, it’s a constantly evolving and highly regulated industry – so it’s almost inevitable that there’s a fair bit of legislation to get your head around. You’ll never be left to figure things out for yourself though, as you’ll be surrounded by incredibly bright and knowledgeable people. Pensions lawyers are just a small piece of the pensions puzzle. You’ll work with a diverse range of professionals – e.g. investment managers, officials from various regulatory bodies, actuaries, accountants, HR advisors and perhaps even government ministers.

So, yes, in essence, pensions law is quite geeky but the opportunities for collaboration and to grapple with some of the most pressing societal and environmental issues are immense.

Wait, what on earth does the environment have to do with pensions law?

Pension funds and those responsible for managing their assets have a lot of sway. Partly due to the huge sums often involved, but also because investment managers and pension trustees ultimately decide where best to invest our pension pots. Until now, there has been relatively minimal guidance on investment practices, so our hard-earned cash has been invested in all sorts of industries. Most of us don’t have a clue where it goes, but it’s not uncommon for our cash to be invested in carbon-intensive industries, or in companies with appalling human rights’ standards.

It’s not all doom and gloom though.

As we’ve been propelling ourselves towards an environmental catastrophe, the role of pension funds in all this mayhem has been called into question. In recent years, the pensions industry has been subject to increasing regulation and scrutiny to curtail the injection of cash into the fossil fuel or tobacco industries, for example. We still have a long way to go, but these regulatory changes have ushered in a wave of ethical consciousness.

During my brief glimpse behind the pensions scene, I have been somewhat reassured that the financial services industry has the necessary impetus for change and innovation, even in the throes of an environmental crisis.

Oscar Hodgson