fivehundred magazine > Interview with... > Ashkhan Candey: It’s like being at a zoo but only hanging out with the gorillas

Ashkhan Candey: It’s like being at a zoo but only hanging out with the gorillas

Candey’s managing partner talks about the culture of a disputes-only firm, the challenges and opportunities facing litigation boutiques, robot armies, and why it’s important for a leader to retain their humanity and humour

For readers who don’t know you or Candey well, please provide us with a brief history of you and your firm.

Founded in 2009, we have grown into an international litigation boutique of 25 fee earners. We are a mix of solicitors and barristers undertaking large scale multi-million pound global and cross-border litigation with a focus on high value securities and shareholder disputes in the High Court, Court of Appeal, and in International Arbitrations. We plan to expand to up to 35 fee earners and stop there. At that size we think we can handle multiple complex cases at the highest level but retain our close-knit, collegiate, family atmosphere.

What’s surprised you most about launching and running your own law firm?

I’ve been most surprised at how most of our work comes from recommendations from other lawyers, and that lawyers in other firms are more like our colleagues than our opponents. I have also been surprised at the frequency with which we are in court, with so many cases fighting all the way to trial.

How would you define your firm’s culture and how important is that culture to you?

Liberating: we strive to encourage our staff to be themselves and to grow their own style to their maximum potential. We believe that above all you have to have emotional intelligence and a sense of humour.

We aim to ensure that staff enjoy their work, and there is definitely a play hard culture.

We encourage everyone to get to the point, and say it as it is, in succinct, concise language, providing clarity and leadership and not over burdening our lawyers with an hours recorded culture, but a value delivered one.

Through being a disputes-only firm the culture feels different to a firm where you have non-contentious colleagues. It’s like being at a zoo but only hanging out with the gorillas.

Everyone is on a perpetual war footing. That ethos brings with it a unique environment in which every lawyer needs to be properly equipped and supported by the firm and each other.

Absent these attributes, absent this culture, we may as well close up shop. Our culture is what defines the firm and is fundamental to its success.

What does innovation mean to you and how can firms be better at it?

Practically speaking, technology, flexible working practices, and flexible remuneration (rewarding success) are at the core of innovation. So too is challenging antiquated perceptions of hierarchy. We expect the most junior staff to show leadership and to challenge their peers in clients’ best interests.

The firm has been at the forefront of innovation by developing the law on funding, retainers, and costs and will continue to do so.

With funding of legal costs being paramount to obtaining access to justice, developing the law on finance and security in litigation is at the heart of innovation. As a party to proceedings against KPMG, we established before the Court of Appeal, the right of litigants to charge monies in court for the benefit of their lawyers, thus being able to use a pot of cash paid as security to also fund a no-win, no-fee retainer or an adverse costs policy in the event of success. That decision has immediately freed up millions to fund cases and achieve justice, particularly in a David and Goliath situation.

Similarly, in another reported case the court recognised our ability to switch from a damages based retainer to a conditional fee agreement only weeks before trial, rightly allowing lawyers and clients to be nimble and flexible in pursuit of justice.

Firms will only get better at this by taking more risk, should they want to! For most firms, the only option is to work with funders.

What’s the biggest change or innovation you’ve made of late that will benefit clients?

On the practical front adopting a mobile phone app that uses artificial intelligence robots to file current and historic emails, and capture unbilled time. The robot army reduces the time burden on the human one at no cost to the client.

We await judgment in our third Court of Appeal hearing in CANDEY v Crumpler and others where we have argued that allowing a third party funder (and only a third party funder) to be paid first did not waive our right as a law firm to be paid first from the fruits of litigation.

As a consequence of the abolition of recoverable insurance premiums as part of success fees, the reality is that funders are now an integral part of litigation and in many cases provide the funds necessary to pay insurance premiums thereby securing protection for clients from adverse costs.

What are the biggest challenges facing litigation boutiques like yours?

1. Competing with funders, and raising capital to fund contingency agreements. Where possible we prefer to fund cases ourselves.

2. Ever increasing globalisation requires us to build relationships with overseas firms. This gives us a competitive advantage as we can work with the best firm in a region, instead of having to use a local office of a global firm, which may be top notch in London, but mediocre elsewhere. This investment of time is challenging, given that we are very busy and may have family commitments.

“Look after your staff. Without the people, the firm is nothing”

What key litigation or arbitration trends are you seeing at the moment, either domestically or internationally?

In England, funders are treading into champertous waters, trafficking in litigation via the commercial backdoor. Internationally, funders are increasingly major players in cross border litigation, looking at achieving eye-watering returns that are revolutionising the legal industry.

What do you think are the most important things to clients and why? Have these changed over time?

Accessibility, affability, and ability in their lawyers together with drive, commerciality, and emotional intelligence. These desired attributes have not changed at all, and never will.

Is technology changing the way you interact with your clients and the services you can provide them?

Yes. Clients are using a plethora of different apps (Viber, WhatsApp, WeChat, etc.) to send documents and communicate. Being able to use data rooms and platforms and having better mobile access is helpful: it also expands the size of the office in one’s pocket, which can be dangerous to the work-life balance. No one wants a lawyer who is consumed and worn out by work. It tempers the ability to succeed. We are mindful of this.

What have you found is the best way to recruit and retain talent at all levels?

Ensure you create a workplace that people enjoy working in, and give them a stake in the culture so that they genuinely feel that they are integral to the organisation. Always seek to recruit the best people, identifying that a winning team requires different strengths, a mix of skills and personalities.

What are your firm’s policies on diversity and inclusion and wellbeing?

Happy well-balanced people are far more effective than overworked stressed, bored, and unfulfilled lawyers. We encourage a work-life balance, have no billing targets, and want staff (where possible) to switch off and make time for their minds and bodies and to have a life.

Wellbeing requires sufficient resources, effective systems to manage and access information, and above all, supportive colleagues. We provide in-house massage therapy, encourage pilates and Alexander Technique lessons, acknowledging that we were not built to hunch behind computers.

On diversity, it’s obviously all about who you are on the inside. We have an open management structure where systems and policies are there to be improved by all staff.

Finally, what advice would you give to the next generation of law firm leaders?

Show leadership by looking after people and retaining your values, without shying away from difficult decisions. Act quickly, fairly, and decisively. Encourage and empower your staff to lead, and always retain a sense of humanity and humour, even in really tricky situations. Have a military style with your opponents, but be gentle with your staff; reward them and ensure there’s as little hierarchy as possible within the team. Don’t let age be a factor, the young and inexperienced can be a real match. At the same time there is a wealth of talent in those who have seen a lot of life.

Look after your staff. Without the people, the firm is nothing.

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