The three forces that shaped paraplanning

The Paraplanners has turned 20. To mark the milestone, Richard Allum looks back and suggests that three forces have influenced both the business and the short history of paraplanning.


When you approach any milestone, it’s natural to take stock of where you’ve come from. 

Being able to reflect on stuff at this distance allows you to think about things from all sorts of perspectives – both professional and personal.

As anyone who has ever been involved in founding a business will tell you, the impetus to build a sustainable living for your immediate family and, as you begin to employ people, the team that rely on you, can be overwhelming – even when your practice has become firmly established.

As one of the original pioneers of outsourced paraplanning, it’s not all that surprising that the fortunes of The Paraplanners mirror the emerging profession of paraplanning itself. With the clarity of hindsight, it strikes me that the achievements of both were shaped by three really significant forces – disruption, transformation and professionalisation.

Force No 1: disruption

Looking back, it’s sobering to realise that the lifetime of our business is bookended by significant and global shocks – the ‘war on terror’ in the wake of 9/11 at one end and a war in Europe and cost of living crisis at the other.

In between, we’ve witnessed the 2008 global financial crisis and Great Recession, Greek default, EU sovereign debt crisis, Arab Spring, Ebola, Brexit, Sars, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and COVID to name just a few in a lengthy list of 21st century events. 

And all the while, the existential danger of the climate emergency has been building and building and building.

(And I haven’t got space here to list the major regulatory changes that the advice profession has been subjected to over the past 20 years. Plus, there’s more on the effect of regulation in a moment anyway.)

Compared to the benign environment of the 1990s – in western Europe and the US – our world since 2001 has been punctuated by shocks that will have left leaders of any business of any size unnerved, destabilised and uncertain.

It’s why I think disruption is one of the three big themes to form a backdrop to business since 2002.

So, looking back, setting up a business shortly after welcoming twin children to the world and in the wake of 9/11 and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may have seemed reckless. It certainly felt precarious.

But that’s what I decided to do because, looking at how paraplanning was developing in Australia, I’d seen the advance of technology in wealth management and its potential application to change the way we invest back in the UK too.

Force No 2: transformation

That’s why technology has underpinned the second big theme: transformation

Its role has been profound for three reasons:

  • First, because it enabled the rise of investment platforms and broke the grip of traditional pension companies. (Whether that’s still true today is a debate for another time.) 
  • Second, in tandem with the rise of fintech, start-ups began to harness the power of emerging cloud technology to offer access to the kind of business technology that would once have been unaffordable to a founder like me – not without a big loan from a bank.

Brands like Basecamp and Harvest and – yes – apps like Gmail revolutionised the way you could do business. And they enabled something that I’d read about in the early 1990s but could never have imagined would become such an important feature of my own life: the ability to deploy this new technology to establish a business without the need for a traditional office. 

  • Third, it created the environment in which to offer a novel service to an emerging band of progressive advice practices – who saw the potential for technology to transform client experience too – by plugging in technical expertise, research and analysis that they could dial-up or dial down as and when they needed it rather than bake it into their overheads.

(Howard Johnstone, Roger Simpson and Phil Harper were the original trio of clients who recognised the potential. They all remain clients today.)

Of course, when I set out in business in 2002, there wasn’t a well-known label for practitioners who could provide a combination of skilled technical expertise with research, analysis and report writing skills. 

Legend goes that, by drawing on the comparable role of para-legal in UK law firms, the title paraplanner took hold and the profession of paraplanning was born. (A few years ago I found out the late Mike Morrison was working as a paraplanner in the 1980’s and I realised he must have been one of the first in the UK!)

And that takes me to the final big theme from the past two decades and the one that’s closest to my heart: professionalisation.

Force No 3: professionalisation

In the early days, pioneers of paraplanning were faced with a financial advice community who were largely sceptical. Many advisers considered paraplanners to be report writers whose focus was to acquire the skills and knowledge to become a financial adviser.

The idea that a paraplanner would want to pursue a paraplanning career would have seemed implausible.

Looking back, it was the Institute of Financial Planning that changed the game. They were the first organisation to take the emerging population of paraplanners seriously and to recognise professional development support.

So the IFP’s first paraplanning conference in May 2011 marked a turning point for the fledgling profession.

Meanwhile, advice practices were readying themselves for the shift in advice heralded by the retail distribution review. More and more practice principals recognised that paraplanning could play a valuable role in the transition – not only to evaluate investment choices and set the options clearly for clients but, by doing so, to apply a rigour capable of satisfying the changed requirements of the regulator.

The end of the IFP did not dim the growing momentum behind the profession of paraplanning. Both the PFS and CISI picked up the baton. Courses and qualifications dedicated to paraplanning were created. Movements such as the Paraplanners Assembly sprang up. The profession even has its own dedicated publication

Today, paraplanners are sought after with the demand for paraplanning skills exceeding the pool of existing talent. 

The rise, establishment and evolution of the profession that I’ve witnessed over the past 20 years has been remarkable. 

I can only imagine the changes that will emerge in the next 20.