Bretton Woods Law specialises in public international law. As Head of Chambers of a new model chambers comprising of six barristers and one European lawyer, what is the commercial proposition of your chambers compared with a traditional set?

We do specialise in public international law, but even within this narrow discipline we have a very sharp focus. When Neil Macaulay (BWL’s co-head) and I set up BWL we took the view that to thrive at the Bar and to succeed commercially, you have to identify a niche area globally and then proceed to take proactive steps to dominate and own that space, and that is exactly what we have done in the past four years. We originally specialised only in international organisations law, but, through demand, we have branched out in the past couple of years and we now find ourselves doing ever more rule of law work for States. But to understand what we do, you have to understand that international governmental organisations (IGOs), such as the multilateral development banks or “MDBs” (e.g. African Development Bank in Cote d’Ivoire, the Asian Development Bank in Manila in the Philippines, the World Bank in Washington DC), are creatures of multilateral treaties; they are products of public international law and they ordinarily enjoy a panoply of immunities and privileges, one of which is an immunity from legal suit in their respective Member States. This means that the IGOs have over the years created and developed their own internal courts to deal with a variety of matters, including disputes with the international civil servants (ICSs) that work for them and with entities that benefit improperly from their funding. BWL operates within these courts, committees and tribunals around the world.

The strength of BWL and what I think sets it apart from other traditional sets is that we are in effect a tightknit and unified team. We all trust one another and work for the general good and benefit of chambers. Although we are all barristers, we try to operate as an international law firm and to succeed internationally – which we have done – you have to adopt this attitude. To compete with US law firms and others, you have to be pro-active and innovative, whilst at the same time preserving the very best aspects and traditions of the English Bar.

Pre-eminent in the field of Multilateral Development Banks, you are one of only a handful of lawyers globally that can claim true expertise and demonstrated success in defending companies and individuals accused of sanctionable practices. To what do you credit your success?

On leaving the Army, where I held a commission in the Army Legal Corp (as it then was), I worked as a barrister for the United Nations in the Middle East and thereafter for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in London and the World Bank Group in DC. The experience I gained within these IGOs was invaluable and allowed us to establish BWL. At the World Bank, I was in effect the Director of Operations for the bank’s anti-corruption office (known as INT) and while working in this capacity I came to appreciate that no one law firm or chambers anywhere was specialising in defending entities accused by the MDBs of engaging in corruption or fraud in order to be awarded lucrative MDB financed contracts. I identified the opportunity and BWL is the result of that and other opportunities within the IGO community. But the true success of BWL is of course its barristers, all of whom are excellent and motivated lawyers. We are a team and that is our true strength.

In light of the changes in the legal landscape with ABSs amongst other models over the last few years, how do you see the future for the Bar and law firms over the next five years?

To succeed, chambers in 2015 and beyond need to view themselves – as far as possible – as businesses and conduct themselves as such. They need to narrow their focus, specialise to such an extent that they can compete internationally for clients who pay well and on time for their services, and have strategies in place for business development. Much depends upon marketing and websites, for today’s legal market is global and barristers are competing against lawyers and law firms from around the world. The English Bar and its barristers are an attractive proposition to foreign clients and the key to success is self-evidently attracting their attention.

Given the high profile PIL advisory work that is undertaken by you and your colleagues what has been your most memorable case to date and why?

Much of what we do is highly confidential, but Neil Macaulay, Alex Haines and I are presently instructed by an MDB in what must surely be one of (if not the) largest corruption cases in the world today. This has pitted us against eminent US law firms representing the accused company and has these past three years been challenging, exciting and rewarding. I am also presently reviewing the criminal justice system of a Middle Eastern state and this is proving to be immensely satisfying as the State concerned is genuinely attempting to enhance the human rights protections afforded to its citizens and at the same time improve the independence of its investigative and prosecutorial arms.

How do you like to spend time away from chambers?

Although it does not show, I go to the gym and run regularly. I have always found exercise and sport to be a shield against stress and the rigours of managing a dynamic and growing business.

Lee Marler was interviewed by Guy Hewetson and Mathew Kesbey of Hewetson Shah LLP