You are a partner and head of Harneys’ litigation and restructuring department in Hong Kong. Having moved from the Bar, to what do you credit your success?
It’s always hard to say why others in an organisation decide to promote you, but I think a quality that Harneys really values, and somehow saw in me, is an entrepreneurial spirit. Clearly, to become a partner leading high value international cross border litigation, you have to be a half-decent lawyer, but equally, fuelling the growth of the firm has been immensely important in the last few years. That has meant a truly revolutionary, not evolutionary, process of introspection for Harneys. In certain areas, we stopped all marketing and global expenditure, only to find that it made little difference to the bottom line. In other areas, we threw the full weight of Harneys resources at it, usually in a race with our competitors, and have managed sometimes to steal the march. I take no credit for any of this since I am but one person and it is down to the partners of the firm as a partnership. However, for the small contribution that I have made, I am more than happy to credit my own entrepreneurial spirit to my eight years at the Bar in London.
Harneys remains the sole top tier BVI firm in Chambers UK 2016 and now also has four offices in Asia. What are the recent trends in Asia?
Recent trends in Asia, for my part of the business, include a new intolerance of fraud. In the honeymoon period of investing in emerging markets, when returns were comparatively phenomenal, investors would put up with fraudulent dispositions of their target company’s investment assets – they were still making great returns. In the era of the PRC Government’s anti-graft campaign and following some very high profile foreign investment disasters throughout North Asia and South East Asia, the climate has changed. Over the years we have been amazed at the reluctance of investors in Asia to pursue claims such as breach of fiduciary duties, knowing receipt and dishonest assistance. We would identify fraud and assume that we would be retained to hunt down assets and then be sorely disappointed. In the last 18 months, the tide has changed and claims are on the up at last. The reasons for this are hugely complex and not capable of a linear exposition, but a slowing PRC economy and the drop in commodity prices are significant contributing factors.
How did you find the transition from the Bar to an international law firm?
I had a fairly easy ride. In my four years living in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), I was one of a team of Harneys’ employed barristers whose job it was to appear regularly in court. We then had people on our team with backgrounds in solicitors’ firms to look after the client, thus shielding us from some of the toughest parts of the job. On reflection, that is not necessarily the best strategy. It delayed me learning some core skills of client care and overall case management. However, it did launch me from a small common law practice to an international commercial practice with appearances in the BVI court arguing over hundreds of millions of dollars. What I would say, though, is that the junior Bar can create somewhat pompous young barristers. In my first few years of practice, I had the arrogance of youth, and was attracted to the idea of the pomp of the ancient buildings of the Inner Temple, where I worked, and the ceremony of court dress. It can be a shock to move to a firm where you work in teams and arrogance is not tolerated. Thankfully, Harneys knocked me down a peg or two very quickly by taking me under its wing and teaching me how little law I really knew when I arrived. Some of the partners who were so tough on me when I started are my closest friends in the world now.
Where do you see the growth areas for your practice?
Growth for offshore lawyers will continue to come from the established financial centres, but the environment will be much more competitive. Service standards will need vastly to improve in the offshore community. For offshore litigation growth, the use of much better technology must be introduced to the offshore courts of Bermuda, BVI and the Cayman Islands as a matter of urgency. Embracing that technology will in itself drive growth.
What is the best professional advice you have been given?
One of the senior litigation partners in Harneys very early on said to me that rather than worrying too much about my own career progression, I should do everything possible to create opportunities for other parts of the firm. He was warning me about sharp elbows. The firm’s internal market, as it were, recognises team players and people who put the firm first. As he put it, at the end of each day I should leave the firm in a better state than it was in when I arrived that morning. He is absolutely right. I now give that advice to my own team of associates – usually claiming it as my own.
How do you like to spend your time away from work?
I am fortunate enough to have a very supportive and able team of junior partners and associates which means I can go on holidays. I also try not to work too hard. I see that some of my peers look ten years older than they should, and I am quite sure that they are cruelly ageing early due to work stress and too many long hours. It’s important to have a break. I ski every year. I love running, and my wife and I often go on running holidays in Continental Europe in the summer time. It is the ultimate way to switch off and forget about work.
Ian Mann was interviewed by Guy Hewetson and Mathew Kesbey of Hewetson Shah LLP