From Bosnia to the Home Office
When Malcolm Simmons left his role as president of EU international judges and returned to England and set up as a consultant, his chief concern was practice development
From 10,000 feet, Bosnia and Herzegovina looks like any other country nestling on the edge of Europe. Verdant hills, lush pastures, sunlight dancing on meandering streams, snow-capped mountains; and disparate hamlets with the occasional chimney emitting a wisp of smoke the only sign of life below.
It all appeared rather idyllic. However, I was to discover a country torn apart by war and political division. It was 2001 and I had left a comfortable and secure job in a city law firm to travel to Sarajevo to assume the role of Head of Office of the Independent Judicial Commission, an organisation established to conduct a comprehensive review of the judiciary and to make recommendations for reform.
I had only intended this to be a brief interlude in my career and it came at a time when I had become somewhat disillusioned with my pedestrian life in the City. Having vanquished the impulse to work in exciting and challenging conditions, I fully expected to return to my normal life as a city lawyer.
I did not know then the path upon which I had embarked. I spent the first two years in Bosnia evaluating judges and assessing court performance as part of a process to reselect and train judges.
In addition, I chaired an enquiry into the role of judges and prosecutors in alleged wartime atrocities. It was a challenging time that brought into stark perspective the utter inhumanity of mankind, the depravities of war and the long-term effects of conflict wrought by politics, religion and ethnicity.
In 2003, I was preparing to return to the UK when I was invited to become an international member of the High Judicial Council in Bosnia. The Council comprised respected international justice experts whose role it was to reform the administration of justice.
I saw this as an opportunity to make a real and sustainable difference to the lives of the people of this ravaged country – a people stoical in the circumstances in which they found themselves and optimistically looking to the future. I worked tirelessly for the next eighteen months to introduce new legislation and reform outdated practices and procedures, thereby improving the administration of justice (or so I hoped).
My efforts were recognised in 2004 when I was appointed an international judge of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, assigned to the war crime and serious organised crime panels. I spent the next four years presiding in complex serious organised crime cases.
When my judicial mandate in Bosnia came to an end in 2008, I was appointed a judge of the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo. Kosovo, a part of the former Yugoslavia, had endured years of stagnation that was the product of under investment and political atrophy.
From its very inception the EU mission was immersed in controversy of one kind or another. On a daily basis, international judges struggled with the stark dichotomy of an independent judiciary operating within the command structure of a political mission masquerading as a rule of law mission. In 2014, I was appointed president of EU international judges. In that role, I managed a team of over forty international judges drawn from most EU member states and included judges from the US.
I continued to preside in war crime and serious organised crime cases including murder, organ trafficking, drug trafficking, people trafficking and complex financial crime.
I emerged from this experience cynical at the role of the international community in international development and supremely well-equipped to deal with the most complex serious and organised crime cases.
In 2017, I returned to practice in England and Wales. I continue to work internationally, currently working on two judicial reform projects in the Maldives. Upon my return to practice I had the option of joining a large city law firm or taking a slightly different path and becoming a consultant solicitor.
I chose the latter. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed life in a large firm, working in a team of bright, energetic young lawyers and, pre-covid-19, working in an exciting, vibrant city. However, life had moved on. I now had two teenage children and, having been absent for much of their early lives, I wanted to play a more meaningful role in their development.
I reflected on my former life as a city lawyer and realised that I would likely be leaving home in the morning before my children were awake and returning after they were in bed. Our only quality time together would be at weekends. Being a ‘weekend father’ was no longer a viable option. Working as a consultant solicitor gave me the flexibility I wanted and that my family needed.
I still work hard and often long hours. However, when I have a brief respite between emails and phone calls, I’m able to escape to watch my son playing rugby or my daughter in a hockey tournament. I had gone from being an absent father who would fly in late on a Friday night and disappear Sunday afternoon, to suddenly being around the whole time. It took some adjustment – for all of us.
Initially, my children would ask me when I was leaving and appeared rather unsettled to find me sitting in the kitchen having breakfast on a Monday morning.
I already had a study at home that I was occasionally permitted by my children to use. This has now become my home office. I would not call it ‘state of the art’ but it has everything I needed to function. Indeed, I think many solicitors have recently found that working from home is not as technically challenging as they might have initially thought. And of course, there are significant benefits.Not only did my family benefit from me working from home.
So did my clients. Instead of running several hundred cases, I made the decision to focus my practice on a few high net worth individuals. Initially, I struggled with the whole concept of going it alone. Could I make enough money to support my family? How would I market my services?
The question that troubled me most in terms of practice development was: why would someone with the financial resources to employ a team of lawyers in a large city law firm instruct me? I realised the biggest challenge would be developing a marketing strategy. Some consultant solicitors throw the net wide and simply take whatever case comes their way. I chose a different and perhaps riskier path.
I decided to develop a niche practice and focus primarily on financial crime including HMRC investigations, tax evasion, fraud and money laundering. I also represent clients in complex civil claims.
The personal touch
I currently work with a small number of clients. They know that I will be personally working on their case and not delegating work to junior colleagues. They know that I will be available for them whenever they need to speak with me. They also know that I will be working 24/7 to achieve a successful outcome.
Let me give you an example. While drafting this article, I was contacted by someone in the US. The call came in late on a Wednesday afternoon. The client needed an urgent freezing injunction to stop the dissipation of assets. The respondent had disposed of his assets in the US and his only identifiable tangible asset in England was property that was then on the market and had been sold subject to contract.
Time was of the essence. I immediately set to work drafting the application and the client’s affidavit in support. I engaged with the client continuously over the next 24 hours taking instructions, obtaining documentary evidence, conducting searches and even arranging for the client (who was by then in Spain) to swear her affidavit remotely.
Shortly thereafter, we had the injunction; and 72 hours later the respondent had deposited the principal sum in my client account. In most cases, I am able to provide a substantive response to clients within one hour of an enquiry or email. I do not recall ever being this efficient while working in a large city firm with all the resources that were available to me.
Online conferencing facilities make communication with clients easy and, in most cases, obviates the need for meetings, thereby saving time and money.
Yesterday I had Teams calls with clients in the Maldives, New York and Manchester.
Practice development takes time. The days of the high street firm with clients wandering in off the street have virtually disappeared into the mist of time. In my experience, enquiries are usually the product of personal referrals or online searches.
Personal referrals are not to be underestimated and developing a good social and business network is critical. However, in the modern world, when someone needs a lawyer, the first thing they do is reach for their smart phone. The internet is not the future. It is the here and now.
Firms that fail to appreciate the fundamental importance of online marketing will not thrive. Online marketing is not without its challenges – especially if, like me, you are a complete Luddite. Developing an online strategy, understanding the market, identifying and effectively utilising online platforms takes time and is a constantly evolving series of processes.
This has been a steep learning curve for me. Many of the calls I receive are from people who are seeking free legal advice or wish to pursue a case that stands little prospect of success. Others might have a case, but do not have the money to pay a lawyer.
I would estimate that approximately 90 per cent of the enquiries I receive I refer elsewhere. I usually pick up the phone with a degree of trepidation but, very occasionally, my faith in mankind is fully restored; as it was the other day when I received a call from a gentleman who told me he’d been stopped by police with £300,000 in cash in his car and a further £1.5m had been seized at his home address. Hallelujah.
Achieving a more equitable work-life balance is much discussed but rarely attained. The past few months have demonstrated to many that working effectively and efficiently from home is entirely feasible.
For those in a salaried role, working from home presents the best of both worlds. Many will have used this hiatus in their normal lives to consider other options. Becoming a consultant solicitor is not without its challenges. Clearly, one has to weigh those challenges against the obvious benefits. For me it was an easy decision and one that, so far, I’ve not regretted.
Malcolm Simmons is a criminal defence solicitor, formerly an international criminal judge malcolm-simmons.co.uk