An accidental step into tech sector paid off for top lawyer

Paul Berwin, senior partner at Berwins.Paul Berwin, senior partner at Berwins.
Paul Berwin, senior partner at Berwins.
Paul Berwin is now the go-to legal expert for technology businesses after realising that not many law firms were filling this gap in the market. He spoke to business reporter Ismail Mulla.

Growing up, Paul Berwin’s family’s name was associated with two professions, tailoring and law.

Mr Berwin would go down the legal route like his uncles but little did he know that it would catapult him into the heart of the thriving tech sector in his home city of Leeds three decades later.

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He qualified as a solicitor in 1982 at a firm called Emsley Collins.

Mr Berwin said: “Most of the work that I did and trained in, I don’t do any of now. I mostly did conveyancing and family work, a bit of criminal magistrates court work. I didn’t train in the type of work that I do now.”

In 1986, the lawyer joined Ian Gillis and Co, a firm which largely did conveyancing. The firm had set up a branch office in Harrogate and Mr Berwin would put his stamp on it.

So much so that three years later, when Ian Gillis and Co decided to get rid of its branch offices, Mr Berwin took over. He initially started off as a sole practitioner before Berwins was formally set up in 1993.

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Berwins today has 55 staff and around eight directors. The firm is mainly still based out of Harrogate but also has a Leeds office that operates in an agile fashion.

The work that Mr Berwin does has changed massively since he entered the legal profession. The lawyer has made a name for himself as a go-to legal expert for tech businesses.

It wasn’t a specialism that Mr Berwin had particularly courted. In fact, his involvement with the sector came as a result of one of the firm’s existing clients asking Mr Berwin to prepare a document for their software company.

Mr Berwin was apprehensive at first as he didn’t have the expertise but after some research he realised that it was an area that most lawyers were still not alert to.

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“It became something that we grew into,” Mr Berwin said. It was a niche area that not many people were practicing in.”

From that moment on, Berwins started advising the tech sector in a fairly low-key way and eventually it led to the firm opening an office in Leeds.

Mr Berwin said: “How the Leeds office came about was we’d been advising technology companies in quite a low-key way for a few years.

“In 2013, I was just spending some time in Leeds and I thought if we’re serious about advising technology companies, we really needed to be in Leeds.

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“Knowing hardly anybody in Leeds in terms of the tech community, I set up an office at Calls Wharf. It was really just me sitting there and then making connections in the tech community.”

He would go one better and get involved with a group of people that would form the hugely influential Leeds Digital Festival.

“When the first meeting took place in a pub, I think it was Simon Palmer from Garbutt + Elliott, who said it would be good to have a lawyer along so he invited me,” Mr Berwin says. “I was then involved from that point.”

The lawyer would form a trio with Mr Palmer and Stuart Clarke as directors of the Leeds Digital Festival.

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Understandably, Mr Berwin ranks the tech sector in Leeds highly, especially standing out in areas such as data and healthtech.

However, he believes it’s the collaborative nature of the tech sector in his home city that makes it stand out.

Mr Berwin says that the digital festival is both a symptom of that collaborative nature as well as its cause.

“Having a central event has helped people talk a lot more and to see what we can do together,” he added. “It also helps that Leeds, although it’s a big city, has a compact core. People are physically able to get together very easily.”

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Playing a role in championing Leeds as a centre of digital excellence is something that Mr Berwin is very proud of.

He said: “Even though I’ve always lived in Leeds, until 2013 I hadn’t worked in the city since 1986.

“Reconnecting with Leeds has been great and reconnecting with Leeds at a time when it just seems to have got a huge boost and refound its energy and self-belief has been a privilege.

“Being involved in Leeds Digital Festival is something that I’ve been really proud of. Seeing my city and being a part of something that is a great story in the city has been really exciting.”

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Mr Berwin is usually one of three people mainly based out of the Leeds office.

Berwins sees itself as a “very values-based business”. In addition to Leeds Digital Festival, the firm is also involved with Salon North in Harrogate.

Mr Berwin said: “Going way back to the firm’s roots we identified three elements of what we described then as a culture of exceptional care. The elements initially were care for our people, care for the work we do and care for our clients. Those are the main things. A few years ago we said ‘well, care for our community is important to us as well’.”

While the law firm bears his name, succession is well underway at Berwins and Mr Berwin is happy looking after his specialism in technology. He said: “I was managing director of the firm until probably about seven years ago. I’m no longer managing director. I focus on my specialist area and on developing that.

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“The managing director of the firm is Sarah Smith, who is a family lawyer. That handover was done several years ago so that the firm, even though it has my name on it, it’s not by any means all about me.”

Mr Berwin added that it was the “right time” to hand over the reins. He said: “It wasn’t something that was a big issue for me really because from my point of view it was never really about me. It was about creating a good sustainable firm. Being sustainable is about also making yourself dispensable.

“Obviously, you’re always looking at how the firm goes and having input as well but in terms of handing over it was seven years ago so it’s never really been an issue.”

If you think that’s a cue for his departure from the profession, you’re mistaken. Mr Berwin has no intention of hanging up his boots yet. “I don’t actually have any need to stop doing what I’m doing,” he says. “I still have a lot of fire and enthusiasm for that. From that point of view I’ll carry on doing it until someone tells me to stop and nobody has yet.”


Title: Senior partner at Berwins

Date of birth: 14/09/1956

Lives: Leeds

Favourite holiday destination: Israel

Last book read: Becoming – Michelle Obama

Favourite film: O Brother, Where Art Thou? – Coen Brothers

Favourite song: Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen

Car driven: Range Rover Evoque

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Most proud of: Children, contributions to the legal and Leeds tech sectors and the Leeds Jewish community

Education: Bootham School York; Liverpool University (BA Hons History); McMaster University, Ontario (MA History); Leeds Law School – law qualifications.