Scott Foster: change of direction (pic: Terry Murden)
The arrival of Scott Foster at law firm Balfour+Manson has created a stir in legal circles, finds TERRY MURDEN
For more than 35 years Scott Foster was a banking adviser to the country’s professional services firms, easing some of them through tough times, and keeping a fair few heads above water. Over that time, he got to know the main players and built a knowledge of the legal sector’s inner workings.
It has prepared him well for the next chapter in his career. In a reversal of roles he’s now become the bank’s customer as he takes on a job with one of his former clients, Balfour+Manson. His appointment, as a non-lawyer, has attracted attention across the legal sector.
Three years ago his future looked far from settled as he took a voluntary redundancy package from the bank he joined from school. It was a month before Covid closed the economy.
“I thought I was a one-club man,” he says, “I’d never considered what else I might do.”
He launched himself as a consultant at possibly the worst possible time and when work with a key client dried up he found himself looking for another opportunity. He was offered the chance to rekindle his relationship with Balfour+Manson, taking him in an unexpected new direction.
“The partners asked me to help take their strategy forward as chief operating officer and it appealed to me as a challenge,” he says.
While the sector has dabbled in alternative business structures that introduce non-lawyers into senior roles, the top management jobs still tend to be in the hands of partners. Foster is neither a director nor a partner, he’s an employee, but his new role, nonetheless, gives him a significant input into how Balfour+Manson develops as a business.
“This is a very good firm of lawyers, but their focus is on serving the clients, and law firms also need to be commercial entities,” he says.
He also takes some of the load off the shoulders of executive chairman Elaine Motion to whom he reports.
“There is more regulation, more compliance on law firms. There is succession planning, staff training. As the business grows these pressures also grow and I’m there to deal with all that.”
The deep insight into the profession that he gained at Royal Bank of Scotland means he’s working in familiar territory. Balfour+Manson had been a client for 18 years.
“You never go into a job thinking you have all the pieces in the jigsaw but when I was introduced to the 22 partners here I already knew 20 of them,” he says.
Looking back, he says RBS treated him well and while it had been rewarding to help many clients through difficulties he admits a little sadness that ultimately it was his own employer that took a hiding in 2008.
‘People were rightly making comments about the bank and I was going to have to take it’
The negative headlines that accompanied the bank’s failure left a deep scar across what had been one of Scotland’s financial titans and it had a lasting effect on the staff. He found that advising clients while the bank’s mistakes were the talk of the town taught him something about himself.
“When you are dealing with people whose business is on fire, while your own house is on fire, it means you have to show some humility.
“People were rightly making comments about the bank and I was going to have to take it. I was doing a job that wasn’t easy and I had to show I had a way of dealing with people in that situation.”
There was a danger that the bank’s problems would undermine the relationships he had built over more than three decades.
“I’d like to think many of them appreciated that as a team we were actually doing a good job.,” he says. “The relationships I had with those firms carried on.”
It so happened that as the bank was melting down, many of the long-established Scottish law firms were witnessing a shake-up of their own that saw a number of familiar names such as Tods Murray, McGrigors, Semple Fraser and Dundas & Wilson mopped up and disappear.
He could see the consolidation taking shape. “There were tell tale signs in the market place. Partners and teams departing because they could see acquisitions coming. Some of the panels were cutting back on the number of firms they would use.”
He says it all added to the mix of knowledge he can put to good use in his new role.
“I have been working with lawyers for a long time,” he says. “and you learn a lot by keeping your ears open and your mouth shut.”
Occupation: Chief operating officer, Balfour+Manson
Birthplace: Glasgow, spent early years in Bristol
Education: Stewart’s Melville College, Edinburgh
What did you want to be when you were young?
A professional cricketer. I was on Gloucestershire’s books as a youth and played schools cricket. I later played for Scotland under 16s against an English team that included Michael Atherton, Nasser Hussain and Mark Ramprakash.
Do you still play?
No. Now it’s golf.
If you could meet three people, living or dead for a fantasy dinner who would you choose?
Stephen Fry, comedian, actor and writer, for his intellect
Barack Obama, ex-=US president, for his leadership qualities and style
Peter Alliss, former golfer and golf commentator, for his conversation and stories