Two out of three ain’t bad

  • Author : George Lyall
  • Author : Sally Percy
  • Date : April 2013
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER: Sally Percy is a Freelance Editor and Journalist

As a young boy growing up in Edinburgh, George Lyall was advised by his mother that he should become a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant. But Lyall himself had greater ambitions: he set himself the goal of becoming both a lawyer and an accountant by the age of 30. He missed achieving that goal by a whisker – one month after his 30th birthday he was qualified in both professions. ‘It was the only life goal I’ve ever set, and I’ve avoided setting such goals ever since,’ he explains, cheerfully.

Although Lyall first trained as a Scottish solicitor, he had always enjoyed figures – a trait that he admits is ‘rare for a lawyer’. So, after qualifying, he became a tax assistant in the private client tax team of Arthur Young, McClelland, Moores & Co, a predecessor firm of Ernst & Young. There he began training as a chartered accountant (in case you’re wondering, he found the accountancy exams harder than the law exams). ‘I did that to make myself recession-proof,’ he reveals, adding: ‘So far, so good.’

Lyall stayed with Arthur Young in Edinburgh for nine years, but after it merged with Ernst & Whinney, the firm began to review its approach to preparing personal tax returns. Sensing that might not bode well for his own future, Lyall decided to look around for other opportunities. He returned to law, as head of the private client tax team at Newcastle firm Dickinson Dees in 1994. A year later, he also qualified as an English solicitor and vowed that would be the last professional exam he ever sat. He was made a partner at Dickinson Dees in 1997 and now specialises in the taxation of private individuals, family companies, partnerships, charities and private trusts.

Signing up

It was through Dickinson Dees that Lyall was introduced to STEP: the North East and Cumbria branch of the Society met in the firm’s offices. He joined the branch and quickly became heavily involved in the organisation, serving as an ordinary committee member, programme committee director and branch chair. He also sat on the STEP worldwide council for several years. In 2003, the STEP Council was reduced from 40 members to 24 and Lyall stepped down. But following the creation of a regional structure for the organisation, he joined the regional committee for England and Wales, serving as both deputy and chair.

In 2008, Lyall returned to Council after he was appointed as the member for the England and Wales region. Council elected him to STEP’s board of directors in 2010, a responsibility he still holds, as a member without portfolio. ‘I suppose it makes me a bit of a troubleshooter, so I get a few challenges from time to time,’ he says. He’s also involved with STEP’s Philanthropy Advisors Special Interest Group, liaises with the education team and sits on the Society’s staff remuneration committee.

As you’d expect from someone with such a long association with the Society, Lyall is proud of STEP. He particularly values its international scope for education and networking. ‘Whether you’re from a one-man band or one of the largest professional organisations in the world, you need to know what’s on the other side of the fence and who you can ask for a second opinion,’ he says. ‘Through its education programme, lectures, seminars and conferences, I think STEP fulfils that role well.’

He adds: ‘Recently, someone asked me if I knew of a good private client lawyer in Panama. Well, actually I have met a good private client lawyer from Panama, and I met her through STEP.’

Around the world

This intercontinental reach is essential to STEP’s success in the private client arena, says Lyall. ‘In our global society, where clients have property and business interests across Europe and the world, trust practitioners have to understand the implications of cross-border matters.’

So far STEP has thrived in English-speaking nations that practise common law, such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and it is also taking off in the US, where it has around 1,000 members. But Lyall believes that to keep growing, STEP needs to expand its presence in civil-law jurisdictions, such as those in mainland Europe and South America. He admits that this will be a challenge, but argues that it can be overcome. ‘Civil law does not recognise trusts,’ he points out. ‘So convincing someone of the advantages of joining STEP is difficult when half of what you’re offering isn’t available in their jurisdiction. But that’s not to say they don’t deal with something similar, such as a foundation, like they have in Switzerland, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein.’

STEP’s estate-administration role offers another way to broaden the Society’s appeal. ‘People still die in civil jurisdictions,’ Lyall observes. Expanding in non-Anglophone countries will also require STEP to invest in translating its training material into other languages. It is already heading down this path and has plans to grow in South America by setting up additional branches and offering further educational programmes.

Lyall believes trust and estate practitioners around the world face similar challenges in the form of regulation and the cost of regulation. In particular, he points to the US Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. ‘The actual control the US wants over its citizens is going to affect the rest of the world,’ he observes. ‘That is something any advisor in the private client arena will have to take notice of.’ Among the entities that the US wants to regulate are trusts, which are not as well understood there. Lyall says this is an area where STEP can, and should, get involved, by lobbying, educating and engaging governments. It has already made representations to authorities in London, Brussels, New York and beyond.

Moving with the times

But it isn’t just regulation that gives STEP its cross-border dimension. High-net-worth individuals tend to share common concerns wherever they live, so practitioners globally end up advising them on similar issues. Lyall notes how investment, for example, has clearly become international. Is it safe to have money tied up in South Africa? Should a client sell a villa in Kos in case Greece leaves the euro? According to Lyall, the question clients are asking is: ‘What’s happening overseas that I need to take account of in relation to my personal wealth, because my personal wealth may be in a number of different jurisdictions?’ These concerns have been intensified by the financial crisis of the past five years and the disappearance of the supposed security that came with the boom times. ‘House prices were continually going up,’ says Lyall. ‘It made us take things for granted.’

“There’s an acceptance that supporting charitable causes is part of being a responsible citizen nowadays”

Other perennial areas of advice for STEP members are also affected by recent developments. Generational transfer, ‘an old problem, but a constant problem,’ is transforming as a result of ageing populations in the developed world. ‘It’s a big concern – the cost of care and the challenge of dementia,’ says Lyall. He believes STEP members must be proactive about educating their clients in the importance of granting an appropriate power of attorney. ‘The number of people who don’t have a power of attorney is quite significant,’ he notes. Also, changing demographics will make generational planning more complex. ‘The older we get, the more generations need to be taken account of in the family succession plan. You have to plan upwards as well as downwards.’

Lyall points to one more trend that he believes will continue to affect practice: the well-publicised philanthropy of ultra-high-net-worth individuals such as investor Warren Buffett, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and footballer David Beckham, which has spurred other wealthy people to give something back to society. ‘There’s an acceptance that doing wider good and supporting charitable causes is part of being a responsible citizen nowadays,’ Lyall explains.

The next step

Nearly 20 years after he achieved his aim of becoming ‘recession-proof’ by qualifying as both a lawyer and a qualified chartered accountant, it is clear that Lyall takes a great deal of pleasure both in his work as a wealth management advisor and in his involvement with STEP. In 2009, he was named one of the ‘50 Most Influential Practitioners’, following global nominations undertaken by Private Client Practitioner magazine. All in all, he hasn’t done badly for a man who only managed to train in two out of three possible professions. ‘We’ll see if I make a doctorate,’ says Lyall, grinning. ‘I’m certainly not training to become a medical doctor.’


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