The world is your oyster

You too can create a pearl of an international practice – as the world limbers up for Rio 2016, Frederico Singarajah explains how he forged links with the Brazilian jurisdiction

As Brazil prepares to open the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Counsel magazine has asked me to share my experience of building an international practice at the Bar. 

I am Brazilian – born and bred – which is why I chose to build a Brazil-related practice. I remember a time when I introduced myself as Brazilian, people would offer me one of three pearls of wisdom: (a) Brazilians are very good at football; (b) an area the size of Wales is being cut down in the Amazon forest every day; or (c) Brazilian carnival women are very beautiful. Over the 1990s and 2000s, though, the Brazilian economy began to stabilise and democracy prevailed. Jim O’Neil coined the term ‘BRIC economies’ and suddenly Brazil became interesting and important. Luckily for me, this was around the same time I was called to the Bar.

First steps

There is surely no one right way to build an international practice. Having undertaken neither the BPTC nor pupillage, I found myself drawing on a combination of common sense and skills gained from my solicitor training. Reassuringly, listening to those senior and formidable practitioners who have truly built an international practice, it appears that there are parallels with my own experience.

The first step I took was to approach the Bar Council. Christian Wisskirchen, Head of International Policy, came to see me in chambers, and I was co-opted onto the International Committee. This opened the door to trade missions, exchange programmes, interest groups and the like. The Bar Council is a great mechanism for disseminating information and creating opportunities; my most fruitful experiences have been borne from my involvement with it. As I speak to my colleagues at the Bars in Australia, Hong Kong and even Scotland or Ireland, their main complaint is how their representative bodies are not as supportive as our own.

Since 2010, we have carried out three missions to Brazil, with one more, hopefully, later this year. We have launched a young lawyers exchange programme with the Brazilian Bar Association, Ordem dos Advogados, to be repeated every year, and launched the South American Interest Group. This has allowed me to make numerous contacts and obtain instructions. I am not alone. At least three other barristers who came on missions have obtained instructions.

Joining organisations

I also joined the relevant chambers of commerce and was listed in both the Brazilian Chamber of Commerce in London and the British Chamber in Brazil. This is a great way to meet lawyers from the jurisdiction you are interested in. They regularly hold social and professional events, and I have spoken at a number of these to broaden my profile. I am one of the founders of Lex Anglo-Brasil, a bilateral association of lawyers for Brazil and the UK. The Bar Council has helped launch a number of different bilateral lawyers’ associations, and I am sure there is one for any jurisdiction you can think of. If one does not exist, then speak to the Bar Council and I am sure they will help you to launch one.

For those who have not been to the International Bar Association (IBA) Conference, I highly recommend it. I can only describe it as a spectacle. It is neither cheap nor a jolly, contrary to what your clerks might think. The Annual Conference brings together 7-8,000 lawyers from all imaginable and unimaginable jurisdictions. It is the most effective way to meet lawyers, obtain information and, potentially, instructions.

Common threads: what has all this taught me?

It is never too early to start. Building up any type of practice takes time and the same applies to an international practice. I have been marketing myself in Brazil for over seven years and have only just started to reap the benefits. However, these have included a £15m aviation dispute in the High Court and a $20m international arbitration. These are good briefs for a junior to act as sole counsel by anyone’s standards.

There are plenty of very senior lawyers around in the international world and the work can often be daunting. But there is also plenty of junior work. Foreign lawyers can often value cost-effective advice and representation. Let us face it, standards at the Bar are getting higher and higher. As a junior, if you have got pupillage and tenancy, you are no doubt very capable. A lot of international work involves giving legal opinions on points of English law, or advice on prospects of potential dispute resolution in London. Being a junior means you will have time to research properly and give comprehensive advice.

Often, instructions will amount to contesting jurisdiction, reviewing a contract or advising on narrow procedural points. In any event, if you have got the work in and are out of your depth, you can always be led. I have not yet struggled to find a willing leader.

You have to learn somehow. There will always be cases that take you outside your comfort zone. International cases are often complex, by their very nature. There will also be other challenges. In emerging markets, reputability of lawyers, money laundering regulations and different codes of ethics are challenges you regularly come across. It is good to challenge yourself, as long as you observe our code of conduct and any local rules in the jurisdiction you are in. Do not over stretch yourself, and use common sense.

Get creative: marketing

Be creative. One of the ideas I had as someone interested in Brazil was to go to the ‘Find a Solicitor’ page on the Law Society website and then choose ‘Portuguese’ as a language. I then found all the Brazilian sounding names, cross-referenced them against their profiles on their firms’ websites and invited them for a coffee or to an event I was speaking at.

Attend as many events and conferences as you can. Distribute cards. I tend to get through somewhere between 250-400 cards at a week-long IBA conference. If you ever get a chance to speak or chair an event, take it. You never know who will be in the audience. Instructions may come from anywhere and marketing is not an exact science. Anyone who says there is a secret formula to marketing is lying. Marketing is about two things: (a) profile; and (b) timing. You can really only control the former.

Networking drinks are always a great way to meet potential clients. I loathe to say it, but the likelihood of being instructed by that person you are left with, at the end of the night, at the bar, having one last drink, is probably quite good. In no way should this be interpreted as me condoning alcohol abuse at professional events. Finding common ground with instructing lawyers and developing your practice with them is very important. My best instructions come from lawyers who trust me and with whom I have worked on many previous cases.

I have always believed that you should spend at least 50% of your time marketing. Seize all opportunities that come your way. The more variety of societies, associations, groups, etc you are involved in, the more chance of success you have. After all, clients who do not know you exist cannot instruct you.

Grants

Building an international practice is undeniably expensive. There are lots of grant programmes like the International Grant Programme of the Bar Council and Country Visit Grants by UKTI. Chambers, Circuits and the Inns of Court also offer grants. Make sure you do your research and get as much funding as you can. But ultimately, there will be times you will just have to put your hand in your pocket. It can be an expensive business. Hopefully, you will find it worth it.

International gateway

Finally, an international practice is an international practice. Although I began by building my relationship with Brazil, I have now moved on to other jurisdictions. I have not abandoned Brazil, but this has been a gateway to Latin America, Portugal and Spain and Lusophone African countries such as Angola, Mozambique and Cape Verde. As barristers get squeezed by legal aid cuts, in-house opportunities and challenge from solicitor-advocates, international practice is steadily growing. After all, there is a seven billion strong market out there. The world truly is your oyster.

Contributor Frederico Singarajah is a barrister at Hardwicke

More information on building a Brazilian and Latin American practice

Snapshot of the Brazilian legal market

The Brazilian judicial system remains relatively slow, costly and somewhat unpredictable. As such, litigating in a foreign jurisdiction (where possible) and electing arbitration are central features in many types of international contracts and foreign investment. International arbitration is now established under the Brazilian Arbitration Act 1996, but is still in its infancy. There is no major international arbitration provider present, and London-based or supervised arbitration is a real alternative to the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) Rules, which are the most commonly used at present.

There are also opportunities arising for members of the traditionally publicly funded bar. The most obvious one appears in the field of business crime and anti-corruption/money-laundering. The Brazilian government and its business community are painfully aware that Brazil remains too low down Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (69th place). They are keen to ensure compliance with international standards such as the UK Bribery Act, which is creating opportunities for advisory work, notably as Brazil is preparing very similar legislation. In addition to crime-related work, there appear to be openings in family (jurisdiction dispute, child abduction, immigration advisory work) and human rights work, for private client practitioners.

 

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Frederico Singarajah

Frederico is a commercial barrister at Hardwicke. His practice focuses on commercial litigation and international arbitration, including shipping, energy, aviation, finance, IP, technology and insurance.