Becoming a litigation lawyer with Latham & Watkins

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Fancy yourself as a litigator? We interviewed lawyers at Latham & Watkins to get a better idea of the realities of litigation at a top City firm.

Chambers Student: How is the litigation team at Latham structured? Which subgroups fall under its disputes umbrella?

Oliver Browne (partner): Our global Litigation & Trial Department is comprised of nine practice groups: antitrust and competition; benefits & compensation; complex commercial litigation; environmental litigation; intellectual property litigation; securities litigation & professional liability; supreme court and appellate; tax controversy, and white-collar defence & investigations.

In our London team, we focus on antitrust and competition, complex commercial litigation (including international arbitration), and white-collar defence & investigations.  The complex commercial litigation group covers a huge variety of matters, from banking and finance related litigation, contentious regulatory disputes to bilateral investment treaty arbitrations.

CS: Which sectors does the firm operate in?

OB: Latham & Watkins is a full-service law firm operating from a global platform spanning 14 countries. As a global elite law firm, we work with clients from a wide range of sectors and industries from entertainment, sport and media to fintech, healthcare and life sciences and technology. 

CS: To what extent do lawyers specialise within litigation, and when are they expected to do so?

Philip Clifford (partner): By the time they are four or five-years qualified, litigation lawyers will generally have at least one specialist string to their bow, representing what they have focused on or wish to focus on in the future. This helps them to add particular value to teams working in that area and respond quickly and efficiently to clients' needs. As lawyers get more senior, it also assists them in differentiating their services from others and marketing themselves.  

The litigation team at Latham is very flexible and there is nothing to stop lawyers changing their focus or having multiple or very broad specialisms, such as being a general commercial litigator. However, litigation covers a variety of areas, some of which require specialist knowledge or skills. For example, our international arbitration team conduct their own advocacy, so someone wishing to pursue arbitration at Latham would be expected to have or be developing their advocacy skills.  

CS: What’s the most exciting case you have worked on?

Aisling Billington (associate): I’ve had the chance to work on some really interesting cases so far at Latham, but I think the most exciting case is an investment treaty arbitration under UNCITRAL Rules which I am currently working on. The case concerns a bank rescue program in which we are acting for the State and it involves a number of critical points of public international law. I worked on the case as a trainee and I’ve really enjoyed continuing to work on it as an associate, along with my London, Paris and Hong Kong colleagues.

PC: Representing a Canadian client in relation to a dispute over an oil refinery in the Caribbean.  This involved many trips to Vancouver, Montreal and Trinidad, and a number of weekends in the Rockies or Tobago. I often thought (for example, whilst walking along the beach) what a great job I had.

OB: I have been working on various matters arising out of the fraud committed by Bernard Madoff (that came to light in December 2008) for over a decade.  These matters – for one financial institution client and its subsidiaries – involve hundreds of entities across a dozen jurisdictions and range from the small (millions of USD) to the very big (billions of USD). The range of issues has been extraordinary, and the complexity of the cases has required hearings at all levels of the courts in (among other places) the BVI, the UK and the US.

CS: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about being a litigator?

AB: I think the biggest misconception is that we are quite aggressive and argumentative people by nature – this is untrue for almost every litigator I’ve met!

OB: Most litigators learn that aggression very rarely pays dividends and usually has the opposite effect to the one intended.  Similarly, most litigators learn that endless fighting almost always fails to serve a client properly.  The better litigators are able to look at issues in dispute from all sides and see their opponent’s point of view.  They then work to achieve the optimum outcome for their client, which is very frequently a settlement.  In other words – our job isn’t about litigating, it is about resolving disputes efficiently and effectively.

CS: What is the hardest part about being a disputes lawyer and what is the most rewarding?

Hayley Pizzey (associate): Our clients are diverse and international, meaning that cases can sometimes become your day and night. On the other hand, it also means cases vary significantly in their subject matter. One minute you could be considering the intricacies of the GDPR and the next, you’re drafting complex competition law arguments.  The variety and the range of complex issues is one of the things I love about the job.

OB: A particular challenge is that you tend only to come across clients who are in some form of crisis.  Our job is to help our clients through those crises, but that can take a toll!  A knock-on effect of that is that disputes lawyers start to see catastrophe around every corner, having seen so many transactions end in litigation.

PC: The hardest part is knowing that your opponents are constantly watching to see if they can trip you up or destroy your arguments. On the other hand, it is very varied, interesting, intellectually challenging and, for the most part, consistent with a reasonable work / life balance.

CS: How would you describe the working lifestyle of a litigator at Latham?

OB: One of the advantages of being a litigator is that the timetable on any given matter tends to be set, early on, by the court or tribunal.  That often means a more predictable timetable (and a more manageable life!).  We tend to know the parts of a matter (disclosure, filing submissions, trial / hearing preparation) that will be tougher well in advance so we can plan accordingly.

HP: The hours can be long (as you will find with any City firm), and so we prepare to cancel plans, if needed, but that is part and parcel of working on market-shaping, high-stakes, multi-jurisdictional disputes for international clients, particularly when there are upcoming court deadlines or hearings. That said, when things are quieter you do get some freedom with your time, so there is a balance.

CS: What impact has COVID-19 had on the litigation market?

OB: The pandemic almost immediately lead to a series of major and minor disputes for many of our clients – usually revolving around issues of force majeure (where available), frustration, insurance coverage for business interruption and non-performance of contractual obligations.  Some of those disputes have continued, but many settled or were resolved. But the pandemic came at a time of economic turmoil and precipitated a recession – and that has resulted in more litigation more quickly that might otherwise have been the case.  Those matters, some of which have an insolvency / restructuring / economic distress aspect, look set to be part of the litigation landscape for the next few years.

PC: The most obvious shift has been away from physical meetings, international trips, conferences and hearings in favour of zoom meetings and the like. It has also led to some delays and postponements of hearings. On the other hand, there has been increased demand for advice to businesses and projects affected by the pandemic. It appears that the market for litigators will continue to be very strong.

CS: What opportunities are unique to working at Latham?

AB: The ability to keep a broad practice is something I really value about working at Latham. Many other firms keep their litigation and arbitration teams separate, meaning that on qualification you must choose which you wish to specialise in. At Latham we have a number of partners and associates who do both. As a junior associate, having the opportunity to work across the practices and gain experience in both commercial litigation and arbitration is really important and makes you a better lawyer overall.

HP: Latham truly is ‘one firm’ despite having almost 30 offices worldwide. It has no head office and no dominant practice.  I have worked on a number of cases with colleagues from around the globe, and the sense of teamwork and camaraderie makes it feel like they are in the office next door. Associates can also get involved in the management of the firm via their participation on a number of committees such as the Associates Committee, which evaluates and recommends lawyers for promotion to partnership every year, Recruiting Committee and Diversity Committee. For example, I am a member of our Technology Committee, our Charity Committee and our Multicultural Promotion and Attainment Coalition Committee.