You have built a reputation for being the pre-eminent choice for high-value litigious off-shore disputes. To what do you credit your success?
Serendipity, and an inability to say ‘no’. Thirteen years ago, having scraped the bottom of the barrel, my clerk asked me if I could go to the British Virgin Islands the following day to cover for a colleague out there who might have had a diary clash. I reflected for a nanosecond, before reluctantly agreeing. In the event, I did not have to step in for him but became the junior on an immensely exciting case that took me around the Caribbean for the following four years and introduced me to some pretty ‘interesting’ characters and a number of hugely talented lawyers. (As well as receiving instructions to stay on Tortola for the entirety of January 2004 ‘in case something happens’ – nothing much did apart from the first signs of cirrhosis which told me it was probably time to leave.)
As to saying ‘no’, personal insecurity means I simply cannot refuse work, resulting in numerous family holidays that have taken place without me, missed birthdays and school plays, and occasional harrumphing from my very understanding better half; the upside is a huge collection of Avios and views of beaches that I rarely get to sit on.
Anyone who knows you, or has worked with you, would agree you are an immensely affable individual. How important do you think it is for barristers at the modern Bar to be ‘user friendly’?
Did my mother write this question? Without doubt, in substantial cases it is the most important aspect of practice. Despite its increasing size, the Bar remains a hugely talented and versatile profession and so many of us could handle many of the cases I am involved in. Practice has changed enormously over the years, and we have moved from the ivory towers of Lincoln’s Inn to the coal face of international commerce. Counsel is expected to roll up the sleeves at the very earliest stages of a dispute and work as part of a large team. The ability to suspend disbelief, together with decent personal hygiene, a few quality gags and the occasional caffeine boost are the essentials of modern international practice – oh, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the BVI Company, Insolvency, and Financial Services Ordnances etc, the Eastern Caribbean Civil Procedure Rules and the judgments of the Commercial Court and Court of Appeal (or, in my case, knowing someone with such knowledge, eg Jack Husbands).
You are a member of six international Bars. What trends are you experiencing in your instructions?
A very significant increase in instructions emanating from China. For many years my practice was exclusively Russian or CIS related. However, as China has opened up for business the number of incorporations in the off-shore jurisdictions of companies with ultimate assets in China has shot up. When things go pear-shaped, as occasionally they alas do, one finds oneself arguing about extraordinarily valuable companies operating sugar refineries, hospitals or online games in far flung places. Being barely mono-lingual (albeit with a smattering of Yiddish), I gave up any hope of learning Russian some years ago. As for Chinese, I wouldn’t know where to start. Additionally, as business becomes ever more international, arbitration is making inroads and commercial entities are choosing to settle disputes without recourse to the courts, ie through arbitration in neutral territories.
What has been your most notable case to date?
I have been very lucky, so it’s difficult to name one. IPOC v LVFG (BVI) was tremendous fun and my first introduction to a world of political and financial intrigue. Jinpeng v Peak Hotels (Hong Kong arbitration and the BVI) was best for pure chutzpah (whatever that means). BTA Bank v Ablyazov (in which I was involved for a while) was best for sheer brazenness. But there are many close runners-up.
How have you managed to cultivate an international practice, and with significant changes increasing at the Bar, what advice would you give to others seeking to develop the same?
Good fortune has played a massive part in my rise to obscurity. It is becoming more difficult for juniors to get exposure in the off-shore/international world. Professional clients in the off-shore world are extremely able and have, individually and collectively, huge experience and knowledge of their jurisdictions, jurisprudence, and the London Bar. Also, lay clients are far more savvy than once they were; I remember that the sole book I saw in the office of the head of legal services of a substantial company in a country bordering the Caspian Sea, was a copy of Chambers and Partners. Further, certain jurisdictions are taking steps towards a regime where only foreign leading counsel will be admitted, and even then only on a temporary, case-by-case basis. So the advice must be to know your area of law, both internationally and domestically, seize any opportunity for exposure to it, and work your socks off. Not everyone is prepared for a business day that starts when Hong Kong finishes, and ends when the Caribbean finishes, and it isn’t to everyone’s taste.
What is the best advice you've been given in your career?
A fiver on the number 3 dog in the 7:45 at Walthamstow.
How do you like to relax away from chambers?
Playing the accordion in my basement with my pug, Herzl, at my feet. That’s true love.
Robert Levy QC was interviewed by Guy Hewetson and Mathew Kesbey of Hewetson Shah LLP.