Dispute resolution

Dispute resolution

Karla Sheerin-Griffin

Stephenson Harwood LLP

University: National University of Ireland, Galway
Degree: BA in legal sciences and French

Commercial litigation involves the resolution of disputes in the corporate and commercial sphere, including those arising out of joint venture projects, civil fraud, commercial and banking transactions, corporate governance, financial services regulation and professional negligence. The Jackson Reforms, which came into force in April 2013, have significantly changed the court process, including the way litigation is managed, especially in relation to directions and costs.

Always keen to keep her options open, Karla Sheerin-Griffin launched her career with a BA in legal science and French, followed by a one-year LLB conversion course: “I wanted to ensure law was the right course for me, which is why I chose a BA with legal science rather than going down the law degree route. I really enjoyed studying law and from early on was attracted to the role of a solicitor, as I thought it was a good match with my personality. I wanted to work as part of a team, learn from experienced lawyers and be in a role that would allow me to develop strong working relationships with clients.”

Contentious v non-contentious

Having spent some time as a paralegal in Stephenson Harwood’s Paris office in the asset finance team, Karla completed law school and began her training contract with the firm. Before starting, she wasn’t sure whether she would pursue the contentious or non-contentious route. “I knew I wanted to work in the City, but I didn’t yet know if I wanted to be a transactional lawyer or a litigator,” she recalls. “My first seat as a trainee was in litigation and I loved it from day one. I got a real buzz from the work. I enjoyed the legal research and the wide variety of cases. I felt that we were advising clients on matters that were key to their businesses. I enjoyed managing competing deadlines and keeping various plates spinning. My third seat sealed the deal; I was seconded to work for a client. The work was a mix of commercial contracts and disputes, and I particularly enjoyed the disputes side. It made me determined to go down the contentious route.”

Now fully qualified and part of the commercial litigation department, Karla deals with a wide range of disputes, but the majority of her work falls into three categories, as she explains: “The first is civil fraud, which includes working on applications for freezing, disclosure and search orders – the work often requires us to take action at short notice to protect a client’s position. The second is financial disputes, in which I predominantly act for banks. I like this type of work because, in addition to advising on disputes, you may also be advising clients on the risks of pursuing a particular course of action or transaction and how to manage those risks. You really need to understand the client’s business in order to do that. The third is art law, which is quite unusual. The work is fascinating and covers a wide range of issues. I have worked on disputes relating to authenticity and title, as well as export licence applications.”

And with that variety of work comes a range of clients, including financial institutions, insolvency practitioners, companies and individuals. “You have the opportunity to develop strong relationships with clients over the life of a case and with repeat clients. It’s important to keep up with what’s going on in your clients’ sectors so you can anticipate the issues they might face,” she continues.  “And although you may have a particular specialism, a commercial litigator should be ready to deal with anything that comes across their desk. The advantage of this is that you develop a broad range of legal skills and are kept on your toes!”

“You have to be able to synthesise substantial amounts of information efficiently – in civil fraud it is often about finding the smoking gun in a room full of documents”

The majority of Karla’s work has an international dimension. Karla recently acted for the liquidators of an insolvent foreign bank in a high-profile, high-stakes fraud dispute which involved multiple claims against a Russian businessman and resulted in a favourable judgment for the client. Those proceedings involved multiple hearings: “I lost count at 20. I was very much involved from the outset, including in the investigation stage, the commencement of proceedings, gathering evidence, instructing experts and preparing for trial. I worked with a very impressive team of solicitors and counsel. It was great to work alongside such talented people.”

It’s all about the buzz – if you don’t get a kick out of the work, it’s not worth it, in Karla’s view. “It’s very intellectually stimulating, helping to find a solution to complex legal issues. The law is constantly evolving, so I have to ensure that I am up to speed on recent judgments and changes in the law.” But as she points out, the law does not operate in a vacuum: “You need to know what your client wants to achieve – for example, how will the time and cost involved in pursuing litigation affect their business? Do they need to maintain a relationship with the other side? It’s all about combining a legal solution with commercial considerations.”

The intense and unpredictable nature of litigation can mean that you have to be flexible with your social life: “Depending on the type of litigation, you may have a clear timeline to work with and be able to plan, but with civil fraud you can get a call from a client and need to take urgent action. I like that intensity, though.”

Brexit and litigation funding

Regarding current issues facing the legal industry, Karla says there is a lot of discussion around the impact of the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union. Clients understandably have many questions and it has created uncertainty in the markets, although Karla says that litigation may be more insulated from this uncertainty than transactional practice areas.

Recently Karla has also noticed a greater awareness of – and interest in – funding options among her clients: “They are raising the possibility of third-party funding with us at an early stage. They seem much more clued up about what options there are, which is interesting. It means that companies that otherwise might not have pursued a claim due to cost pressures are now considering commencing proceedings.”

Skills to succeed

Intellectual ability is key to being a good litigator. There is a lot to learn and retain. While you also need technical ability to succeed, Karla thinks that is something you build on as you gain experience. “You need to be very organised, resilient and able to deal with the pressure,” she adds. “You also have to be prepared to work with other people. I know some fantastic litigators who are introverts, but you must be able to work as part of a team, sharing ideas and working together to come up with a strategy. You also need to be commercially aware and understand what your client is seeking to achieve. And you have to be able to synthesise substantial amounts of information efficiently – in civil fraud it is often about finding the smoking gun in a room full of documents!”

What you shouldn’t do is close off your options too early – get as much experience as you can in a variety of areas and remain open-minded. “It can be difficult to stand out, but one way to do that is to gain experience in a range of things, because that then allows you to show a genuine and informed interest in a particular area,” says Karla. “You can say you’ve tried X, Y and Z, and have realised you really like Z for the following reasons. It can also help you to focus on particular firms if you’ve tried a wide variety of work.” She concludes: “When I started out I didn’t appreciate the wide variety of specialisms that exist within the main practice areas. I have litigation colleagues who specialise in aviation, property, construction and intellectual property disputes – all of which are very different from my work. So it is possible to find something that you’re personally interested in within a broad practice area.”

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