One small step, one giant leap

  • Author : Geoffrey Shindler OBE
  • Author : Jennifer Palmer-Violet
  • Date : August/September
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jennifer Palmer-Violet is Features Editor for the STEP Journal

‘I said to myself at the start, “If we can attract 5,000 members throughout the world, it will be unbelievable”,’ says Geoffrey Shindler OBE. ‘And now you can see what has happened.’ STEP’s President speaks eloquently and passionately about the beginning as though it was yesterday, but it has been 21 years since he helped establish the membership organisation we know today – a society that has become internationally renowned and one that private client practitioners needed. ‘My objective was always to try to make the trusts and estates profession a discipline in itself, which I think we now have,’ he says. ‘But if you’re going back to the days before STEP, there wasn’t a focused body that looked after the interests of those professionals.’

Shindler recalls how ‘poorly’ trust and estate practitioners used to be treated. They didn’t have recognition or credibility. Back then, there was the view that ‘anyone who’s a lawyer can draft a will’, and accountants were taking most of the trust work as they had the advantage of seeing clients more frequently. Industry networking opportunities were rare. ‘The only place you met each other, if at all, would be on commercial conferences,’ says Shindler. ‘But it was very spasmodic. It tended to be senior members who went and the juniors had to sink or swim; they were never seen.’ And this was the era before continuing professional development, something practitioners needed and wanted.

There were legal and financial membership bodies in the UK, of course, but no umbrella organisation for what was fast becoming a multidisciplinary role. ‘A specialism had developed,’ says Shindler. ‘It is no longer possible for anyone to have a full-time role carrying out trust and estate work without a proper theoretical and practical background.’ So when the chance to help form a bespoke professional society came along, he grabbed it with both hands and ran with it. ‘There’s a statement made by Voltaire to the effect that if God didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him,’ he says, ‘and that’s always been the view I’ve taken about STEP.’

Photo: Martyn Hicks

Shared vision

While London had always been ahead of the game, Shindler says ‘it’s interesting that the origin of STEP came from a man in Liverpool’. It was George Tasker who wrote to Trusts and Estates magazine suggesting that practitioners in England form local networks that would meet regularly to discuss work. An overwhelming response to his letter in the November/December 1990 issue proved his point, although the first meeting of the ‘Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners’ saw a group initially reluctant to share technical know-how, remembers Shindler. ‘Once there was a crack in that approach, everyone suddenly realised their secrets were exactly the same as everybody else’s,’ he says. ‘We were all doing exactly the same thing because there was only one way to do it.’ On 4 July 1991, a 21-strong national council officially founded STEP. Tasker’s vision had become a reality, but his ‘number two’ had different ideas.

‘I had designs on world domination,’ says Shindler. ‘Go forth and multiply, I remember saying. And we did.’ Word of the new society spread quickly around England and Wales – something Shindler found ‘astonishing’ – and by October that year 14 non-UK branches, mostly in offshore jurisdictions, were being considered. On succeeding Tasker as Chairman in 1994, Shindler seized various opportunities in a role that would add at least another two hours to each working day. ‘I thought it was a good job for my retirement, which was about ten years away,’ he says, ‘but I also took the view that it’s like becoming prime minister – you don’t turn it down because it may never come again.’

“In everything I’ve done I’ve been the underdog, but I don’t like losing because I’m a sports person at heart”
England and beyond

Shindler’s ambition fuelled STEP’s foray into international territory. He spent much time travelling, with the aim of bringing in the right people. ‘It’s always been very important to identify the major players in any jurisdiction,’ he says. ‘You get them because they will pull in their juniors.’ He visited Switzerland, where he met future chairman Richard Pease, and he took a tour of the Caribbean, which comprised a staggering 15 flights in ten days. Back in the UK, he went straight to the top to recruit an honorary member. Seeking gravitas for the Society, he approached his local MP to host a lunch at the House of Commons and asked a STEP member to invite the Lord Chancellor. ‘You must be mad!’ was the response. ‘Just try, I said,’ recalls Shindler. The gamble paid off. Lord Mackay turned up, on time, on the day he introduced the Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Bill into the House of Lords. ‘The whole thing was just an unbelievable coincidence!’ says Shindler. With such an esteemed member on board, STEP was now a serious body of people.

There was no money in the pot, however, and the Society was living off Shindler’s credit card. ‘We had annual subscriptions, but it was nothing,’ he says. ‘George Tasker always said, “We need to be braver than this. We don’t pay as much as I pay my gardening club to be a member, so we’re never going to get anywhere.” So it fell to me, when I moved from being secretary to chairman, to get the thing moving.’ The idea for an exam structure had been passed unanimously at STEP’s AGM, with Central Law Training (CLT) later chosen as facilitator. This would elevate further STEP’s status and provide more income. ‘We said “It’s our exam but you’ve got to fund it and run it – and you can pay us some of the profits.”’ The launch outside the UK was at the first Caribbean conference in 1999, a significant turning point for this venture and for the history of STEP.

‘At the time, the bank trust companies outside the UK were having a hard time in the courts on a regular basis,’ he says. ‘They appeared not to know what they were doing and it was costing them a fortune in damages and reputation.’ They had created the International Trust Companies Association (ITCA), and Shindler arranged a meeting. He wanted to explain the new STEP exam offering. Together with Martin Pleasance from CLT, Shindler spent an afternoon locked in a windowless room being grilled on why STEP should be the exclusive provider of ITCA’s worldwide education system. ‘We were up against big academic American bodies and I thought there’s no chance,’ he recalls. ‘In everything I’ve done I’ve been the underdog, but I don’t like losing because I’m a sports person at heart.’

More to the point, the presentation to ITCA was integral to STEP’s progress: the Society’s membership was growing exponentially beyond England and Wales. ‘We simply had to get the contract to establish ourselves as the leading training organisation for trust and estate practitioners,’ he says. Waiting for ITCA’s decision was frightening, remembers Shindler, but the day became seminal in the Society’s history. STEP got the contract and the international course took off, paving the way for many more to come. ‘Little did I know, that was not the beginning of the end, but merely the end of the beginning.’

ABOVE: Lord Mackay of Clashfern FRSE (right), then Lord chancellor, receives his honorary step membership from George Tasker (left) and Geoffrey Shindler

Strength in numbers

Stepping down as Chairman in 1998 – having served an extra year – Shindler became President in 2006. ‘STEP has changed my life fundamentally,’ he says, ‘and perhaps I have helped change STEP.’ He says there was never a master plan, admitting he didn’t know what he wanted until he got ‘stuck in’. ‘Timing in life is everything and I happened to be the right person in the right place at the right time.’ He also cites hard work, commitment and vision as key to STEP’s initial success, name-checking James Kessler QC, Jonathan Cooke, Christopher McCall QC, Alison Littleboy, Shân Warnock-Smith QC, Philippa Blake-Roberts and, of course, George Tasker, among others, as people who helped the Society find its feet.

Shindler admits he deviated from Tasker’s plan for a local, branch-led organisation in England – ‘George will probably never forgive me’ – but worldwide expansion was perhaps unavoidable anyway. ‘I don’t think anybody was aware in the global picture how far international trust law had come and was going,’ he says. ‘Everyone knew their little patch but nobody had put it together.’ And the numbers speak for themselves. STEP’s 18,000-strong membership now spans 81 countries, and it’s still growing. Shindler says: ‘It’s interesting that people are coming to us saying, “Why haven’t you been here?”’

First steps
  • November/December 1990 – George Tasker’s letter published in Trusts and Estates
  • 20 May 1991 – 82 people attend initial meeting of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners
  • 4 July 1991 – 21 trusts and estates specialists gather to formally create STEP, with Tasker as national Chairman
  • 25 July 1991 – STEP registered as a limited company
  • 12 September 1991 – first Council meeting
  • November 1992 – office established in Haywards Heath, West Sussex
  • December 1992 – STEP’s 1,000th member joins
  • 1994 – Geoffrey Shindler succeeds George Tasker as Chairman
  • 1998 – Philippa Blake-Roberts takes the reins as Chairman
  • 2006 – Geoffrey Shindler becomes President

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