Reaching new heights
Richard Mumford explains that only by having a truly in-depth knowledge of a client's market, and really understanding their business and commercial objectives, can a regional firm hope to attract big ticket work away from the City. John van der Luit-Drummond reports
The commercial litigation practice at Guildford-based Stevens & Bolton was already recognised as a national leader when it was awarded the prize of Litigation Team of the Year at the Solicitors Journal Awards 2017. The law firm has one of the largest commercial litigation and international arbitration groups outside of London and the awards judges were impressed by its recent successes in technically difficult cases and strong client testimonials.
Much of the firm’s work, which includes litigation, international arbitration, alternative dispute resolution, day-to-day risk management, and strategic advice, is now of an international nature. Clearly punching above its weight in an area dominated by big law, Stevens & Bolton has captured an impressive client roster thanks in part to a novel pricing structure, early adoption of litigation funding – demonstrating vision and innovation – and a close relationship and collaboration with in-house legal teams. So just how has a single-office Surrey firm managed to tempt big name clients away from the bright lights of the capital?
“It is an out of the City, City firm,” replies Richard Mumford, partner and head of Stevens & Bolton’s commercial litigation team. “Most people here have some kind of City background and probably just got fed up of getting on the train to London every day,” he laughs, adding that he is not one of the “stuffed shirt, City-lawyer” types that populate some firms. “I arrived here knowing that the firm had a reputation for being better than all the rest and the reality is it is all about excellent client service We give ourselves a little more time and space than some City firms, so that we can spend more time with our clients and understand their markets.”
Mumford qualified at CMS Cameron McKenna in 1996, before stints at Arnander, Irvine & Zietman, and the Financial Services Authority. He spent nine years as a partner at asb law, heading up its dispute resolution division and latterly the aviation team. He joined Stevens & Bolton as a partner in 2013 to lead its aviation practice, before taking over the litigation team in May from former head Richard King, who became the firm’s new managing partner.
The firm has a family feel to it and thrives on having a cohesive partnership that looks at each individual as a person first, rather than their practice, explains Mumford. “It’s something we have to work really hard to preserve. The partners genuinely like each other, they all pull in the same direction. There is none of this ‘devil take the hindmost’ approach. That is a big part of our success because it makes you happy to come to work, knowing the guy in the next office isn’t trying to undermine you. It reduces that concept of people in different parts of the firm clinging on to work that should be done by people elsewhere. We encourage that collegial approach.”
Mumford’s team is comprised of five specialist litigation partners and 20 fee earners. Construction and property litigation is dealt with separately at the firm, as is private client litigation under the recently recruited James Lister, who arrived from Charles Russell in April. “It is quite a big team for a firm of our size and location. It enables us to deal with a very large and broad mix of complex matters,” says Mumford. “What we don’t do is chase volume litigation, like debt recovery work, that pads out the turnover. We do this work for corporate clients but are not structured to use this as our key driver. We chase quality litigation.” These include shareholder disputes, life sciences, and – Mumford’s specialty – corporate aviation work.
“If you want to be involved in the aviation market you must have a bit of passion for aeroplanes. When I worked near Gatwick I was one of those people that would buy a sandwich at lunchtime and just sit at the end of the runway watching the planes coming in,” he says. “That passion becomes your conduit into that market. This is the approach we take to all of our sector groups and to our clients generally. When you go to networking events, no one wants to talk to you about the law, all they want to do is talk about aeroplanes, AI, generic drugs, or whatever it is that their passion has driven them to do, so you have to know and care about those things. A lot of law firms talk about sector specialisms but you’ve really got to live it, believe in it, take the time to understand the market, because people will look you in the eye and determine really quickly whether you are, in fact, one of them.”
To underscore his point Mumford reels off a list of aviation organisations that he engages with. He’s a member of the Aviation Club, the International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading (ISTAT), the European Regions Airline Association, and the Royal Aeronautical Society. And, earlier this year, he was included in Aviation Week’s ‘Top Ten Leaders of European Business Aviation’ for his drive to establish standards for the charter brokerage industry, in his capacity as chairman of the Baltic Air Charter Association. His understanding of the sector was instrumental in attracting some of the very largest sector clients, including major lessors.
Since the start of the year, Mumford has already given one major lessor advice in relation to $1bn worth of aircraft. “It shows that we are good at garnering the confidence of our clients.” And aircraft lessors need that confidence, because the world of aircraft leasing is a complicated business. “We only advise under UK law but lessors will lease these aircraft to airlines which have their own domiciled state. You then have the law of the lease which could be America, Ireland, the UK, or somewhere else. And then you have the airline in a particular state, but the aircraft fly all over the world, so if you are looking at a strategy to recover a debt or the aircraft then you are often having to consider five or six jurisdictions at the same time. So although we only ever advise under English law, it is our ability to understand the strategic and commercial considerations that enables us to give good advice.”
Mumford explains that there are several factors that require consideration before repossessing a valuable asset like an aircraft. “It might kill the airline, so you’ll never see the debt. And aircraft often have their records in different places, so you might get the aircraft back, but the records are stuck in a warehouse that you can’t get anywhere near. Also, you may not have somewhere else for that aircraft to go immediately. There might be ways you can work with the airline and agree a pay schedule that keeps the aircraft there.”
It is that kind of depth of analysis and strategic thinking that Stevens & Bolton’s litigators bring to bear, compared with many other lawyers that, according to Mumford, are too quick to issue proceedings. “It’s great for fees, obviously, but if you value your long-term relationship with the client then, quite often, it is about saying, ‘Actually that is not a great idea’, and ‘Maybe we should think about a commercial strategy rather than a legal strategy’. It is easy just to issue a debt claim in the High Court, but where does that get the client? A judgment is a piece of paper; it will not necessarily get your client’s money back.”
While assuring me that Stevens & Bolton can be as aggressive as its client wants it to be, Mumford explains that understanding the commercial objectives still comes first and ensures that the legal process doesn’t dominate decision making. “Many lawyers might say something similar, or give off that impression, but in lots of our cases we see lawyers being too mechanical in how they approach their client’s business, or being too eager to show how clever they are. They don’t spend as much time as they should really understanding their client, the dispute, and its commercial nature.”
Aviation work is traditionally the preserve of a small number of City firms – the likes of Clyde & Co, Holman Fenwick Willan, DLA Piper, and Herbert Smith Freehills, for example – so for a firm of Stevens & Bolton’s size and location to be entrusted with such work is, according to Mumford, “a big thing”. “We’ve broken out of that mould and we do it on the quality of the service that we offer.” And if that was not enough, the firm also counts Emirates Airlines, DHL Aviation, and Bristow Helicopters as clients. “As a CV, that is amazing,” says Mumford. “It is symptomatic of the firm’s approach: that we really are able to say we are good at what we do, we are honest in the way we approach our clients, we don’t get into arguments about fees, and we do things in the right way.”
It is easy to understate how much of coup landing some household name clients has been for Mumford, especially considering his firm’s lack of international office network. Any number of City firms with offices abroad, even those without a specialism in aviation work, would appear a more natural fit for the aircraft lessor, or Stevens & Bolton’s other clients for that matter. “We can counter that,” replies Mumford. “If you’ve got a UK-based client with a dispute in Singapore, the Singapore office of an international law firm may not be stocked with the right people for that particular dispute, but it will go there anyway because they’ve got an office. We have spent a lot of time building up a network of ‘best friend firms’ who are specialists in different jurisdictions. And the flipside of that is that we have a network of firms who know that we are a great home for their clients when they need English law advice. We have generated some really complex and high value instructions from our overseas network.”
Of course, Stevens & Bolton are not always the only legal advisers that a large corporate client will work with, but this doesn’t worry Mumford. “If you’ve got a few big City or global firms on a panel then we are quite a good fit to have in there too because we don’t always have the conflicts that big firms have. We are quite careful in targeting our client base because there is nothing that annoys clients more than conflicts.”
Conflicts, really? What about fees? “Price often isn’t the main driver for our clients instructing us,” says Mumford. “We are not the cheapest firm in the world, and so we primarily work on the basis of our reputation and service. We work hard to make sure prospective clients understand our approach to their work. Most of our clients are people who think a little more deeply about who they are using and who they work with.”
And what of the trend towards fixed fees in litigation work? “There has been a lot of gnashing of teeth over the death of billable hours but firms that did what they did well were predicted to survive. That is why we have thrived. Lots of people jump on new funding models and think everything should be done on a CFA, DBA, or third party funding. And one thing you have to be careful of with third party funders and insurance models is the slight loss of control of the litigation. We look at those decisions on a case-by-case basis, because what is best for the client often requires a relatively complex analysis. I had an arbitration a few years back and priced it on a barristerial model: we charged a fixed brief fee for preparation, a fixed amount up to the end of the first week of arbitration, and then daily amounts after that.”
As at other firms, advancements in technology have made the management of costs at Stevens & Bolton easier, but Mumford stresses that, while the firm is open to new tech, it is not driven by the need to be the first to buy into the latest artificial intelligence software or smartphone app. “It is quite clear that the legal tech market is not settled. It is in constant change. We deal with a lot of technology disputes which tells you that IT projects are not always a perfect science. Being first into something is not always the best idea. Picking your moment and the right piece of tech is important.”
Not for the first time in our conversation, he turns to the aviation sector to illustrate his point. “Boeing will announce it is going to launch a new aeroplane, but when you look at the order book you will see that the first few deliveries of that aircraft might be to unusual airlines, in Vietnam, for example. Sometimes that’s because the bigger carriers are sensible enough to let all the teething problems be dealt with and then pick it up when all the kinks are worked out.”
Finally, I ask Mumford if he has considered becoming a pilot himself. “It’s a question I get asked a lot and people in the sector can get a bit sniffy if you haven’t got a private pilot’s licence. I’ve never had the time to do my PPL. But I’ve had some flying lessons and it is on my bucket list of things to achieve.” And why not. Who better than a qualified pilot to provide legal advice to the aviation sector and help Stevens & Bolton reach new heights?
John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal