As its commercial disputes practice celebrates ten years, Alex Wade talks to Clive Zietman and Philippa Charles of Stewarts about litigation as a passion as well as a vocation
What have been your personal highlights in ten years of the commercial disputes practice at Stewarts?
Clive Zietman (CZ), partner and head of commercial litigation: We’ve won some very big cases that have been air-punching moments, but the highlight for me since joining Stewarts in 2009 was the settlement of the RBS rights issue litigation. We represented 300 institutional investors including asset managers, sovereign wealth funds and pension funds in a multibillion pound claim brought under s90 of the Financial Services and Markets Act. The case settled on good terms but in many ways we wanted it to go to trial. It was the first case of its type and it would have been fascinating – but you can’t have everything.
Philippa Charles (PC), partner and head of international arbitration: Representing two state-owned entities based in the Far East in the defence of claims arising out of a failed joint venture valued in excess of $700m, including issues of jurisdiction and governing law under LCIA Rules. The case settled for 2% of what the claimants were seeking.
What have been the standout cases that have best demonstrated Stewarts’ ambitions?
CZ: We are a litigation-only law firm, conflict-free and one of the very few law firms with the expertise and size to take on the banks. That’s really where it started with cases like Commerzbank, where we represented 83 bankers in an unpaid bonus case immediately post the financial crisis. In the New Year, we will be in the Supreme Court on the MasterCard interchange fee litigation, followed by a trial in the Tesco securities litigation starting June 2020.
PC: We are currently acting for two separate states in the English High Court, in one case to resist the recognition and enforcement of awards rendered under intra-EU bilateral investment treaties and in the other on a jurisdiction issue. We’ve also been involved in a long-running, complex and high-value arbitration proceeding in Dubai concerning the allocation and valuation of businesses and assets in multiple jurisdictions.
How would you describe Stewarts to prospective clients? What makes the firm stand out?
PC: We offer genuinely innovative ways of doing things and solving problems, but it’s more than that. It’s about passion. We give clients the top-drawer service they’d expect, but it’s done with passion. We tend to act for claimants but do defendant work as well.
CZ: We’re not about aggression but thoroughness. Having said that, we’re not soft and cuddly either. We’re a commercial litigation practice, whose aim is to get the best results for clients. And Philippa’s right, we love what we do. Clients often tell me they’re instructing me because they’ve read my profile, which says: ‘Clive’s hobby is litigation’.
How do you sell the concept of a disputes-only firm? How does the model work in practice, and to what extent has the financial performance over the last ten years been proof of the success of the model?
CZ: From the outset, clients responded positively to the disputes-only offering. We only do litigation and are totally focused on getting the best possible outcome for clients. We are largely conflict-free and have unrivalled experience in putting together innovative costs solutions to de-risk litigation. This has worked well for individuals and corporates wanting to litigate off balance sheets. It has been a contributing factor to our rapid growth.
PC: The firm has 66 partners and 107 lawyers. In commercial disputes we have 40 lawyers. We’re not a boutique firm any more.
Where do you see the real areas of growth within your practice and why?
PC: We’re nurturing new areas and see growth coming in international arbitration, tax, trust and probate, competition and financial crime. One thing we’re adamant about is that we’re not going to dilute the brand. Stewarts is not going to start doing non-contentious work.
You’ve remained independent, despite looking at a potential merger with boutique Enyo Law in early 2017 to create an £80m disputes specialist. Did that experience put you off?
CZ: The Enyo issue was overstated in the press. We’re fundamentally not interested in a merger. We will focus on organic growth and selected lateral hires, a strategy that we anticipate delivering £80m at the end of the financial year.
Where do you see your growth coming from in future? Is relying on organic growth going to be enough in the current market?
CZ: We’re selling something that’s constantly moving fast, so we need people whose temperament and outlook match that environment. Generally we like to nurture our own people but we’re opportunistic, and we look around the market. We’ll take people on if they can be rainmakers in our environment.
PC: We have taken lawyers from large, full service, multinational firms, but only when we can be sure that they’ll be the right fit. The way we operate is very different to a big firm.
CZ: People here need to be sociable. They need to find networking easy. We are a litigation-only firm, so can’t rely on a throughput of work from non-contentious departments. We need to be imaginative, creative and light on our feet, and go out and get it.
What about younger partners? What has your partner promotion rate been like from the junior ranks? How do you sell a career at Stewarts to the younger generation?
CZ: The stars of tomorrow are here today.
PC: Absolutely. We see our associates as the firm’s future leaders. People regularly come through the ranks and achieve promotion and partnership. The kind of people we take on – the kind who are attracted to Stewarts – have an inbuilt desire to progress. When we do lose people, it’s almost always because they’ve decided to do something completely different with their lives rather than move to a competitor firm.
A quarter of your partnership is female, below the LB100 average. What steps have you taken to ensure adequate female representation at the firm and to encourage women to take on leadership roles?
PC: Men are in the minority in areas such as arbitration and divorce, but no-one here is complacent about this, or unaware of the need to encourage women into leadership roles. Among our associates, the male/female ratio is 26:74. The majority of recent promotions have been women.
How do you think the Stewarts brand is perceived externally, by both other law firms and clients? How has the brand developed or changed over the years?
CZ: We hope we are seen as the litigation firm that deals in high-value and complex disputes. We don’t and won’t pile it high and sell it cheap. That’s been our attitude from the start. We’ve moved from complex personal injury into many other disputes areas, and achieved a reputation for expertise in all of them.
PC: People see us as more subtle than some of our notional competitors. Clients praise the fact that we’re prompt, professional and proactive.
How important are the firm’s culture and values? How would you describe them, and how do you make these live internally?
CZ: Very important. We place a huge emphasis on good behaviour. We want our people to participate in the life of the firm, and to treat everyone with respect. We’re very intolerant of silo behaviour and any hint of bullying. It’s an obvious point but everyone here is a litigator. We all speak the same language and share a common spirit.
PC: Our stated core values are teamwork, innovation, manners and excellence. Taken together, these create and drive an open and collaborative culture. I see us as a constellation of stars. No one star is brighter than the other.
How much of your work is international in reach and how effective is your international network? Are there gaps you need to fill? Is there an appetite for more international work?
CZ: Very few of the cases we handle are confined to UK. We live in a complicated mercantile society with overlap everywhere. London remains an international hub and our work is almost all cross-border which demands effective international strategic alliances.
PC: Perhaps especially so in arbitration. Virtually every client is foreign-based and we’re always looking beyond the domestic market.
Where next for the firm? Where does the Stewarts partnership stand on alternative delivery models and external investment (either from private equity or via a listing)?
PC: We’re not interested in private equity. The growth of the model we have is testament to its success, so why would we want to change it? We just want to do more and more of what we do.
CZ: We plan to stay on top of technological, political and economic developments, as much as legal and regulatory ones, because they have a huge bearing on the work we do. And I’ll find time to do some surfing. I’m not as passionate about it as litigation, but it’s my other hobby.