Head of Commercial Litigation, Clive Zietman, spoke to Legal Business as part of their Disputes Yearbook about his life in the law, his hobbies and what he would do if he wasn’t a solicitor.
I got into law almost by default. I didn’t even like it when I started with Herbert Smith where I was doing non-contentious stuff, but when I did my final seat in litigation I decided this was for me. I’m a games person: I like sport, I like Scrabble, I like fighting. It was only at that point when I decided I wanted to be a lawyer.
It was always going to be litigation. If you look at my profile on our website it says: ‘Clive’s hobby is litigation.’ It’s absolutely true. If I go on holiday and have a bad holiday, I sue the holiday company. Which is, in fact, almost inevitable. We were building a house down in Cornwall and we were entering into a building contract that my wife was helping to draft. I said: ‘Why are you calling in the builders? They’re the defendants!’
It would be journalism, funnily enough, if I wasn’t a lawyer. I do write under a pen name. I write about consumer affairs. I’ve written three books about how to complain – I help consumers with complaints issues.
When I started as an NQ at Herbert Smith, I worked with Lawrence Collins, who ended up in the House of Lords and then the Supreme Court, the first QC to do that. He was an incredible teacher. Apart from that, maybe the other mentor was Clint Eastwood when he said: ‘Make my day, punk,’ then shot that bloke. I come from an old-school breed of litigators. It’s not that we believe in naked aggression, but in the idea that to win you can’t be a pussycat. You can talk about ‘dispute resolution’ or ‘mediation’ as much as you want, but at the end of the day clients want someone who is going to fight their corner very hard.
I very much like winning. When I don’t win I take it pretty badly. As a litigator you have to accept that the system, although good, has problems. There’s no simple form of justice you can just plug into. That’s one of the problems of managing clients’ expectations – they assume there’s a perfect system of justice and you don’t have to pay for it and put in hard work to get a result. But you really do. There’s no magical God-given right to justice.
I have also surrounded myself with a team of 58 people in this department, all of whom I’ve picked. I have a great sense of community with the other partners. I’ve been in firms where it hasn’t been like that, so I don’t struggle to get out of bed at all.
Moving to Stewarts was an easy sell because, firstly, it was a litigation-only firm, which was conflict-free. Secondly, it was a blank sheet of paper because it had no commercial litigation department, so it was like starting a new firm. I’m proud of the team for helping me to build that practice. It’s not me. It’s been a team effort with some really high-quality lawyers who helped us settle some high-profile cases, like RBS and the bankers’ bonus case. They put us on the map, but also improved how we were regarded by the judiciary, competitors and the big law firms who refer work to us on conflicts.
RBS was obviously a landmark case for me. But in a funny way, the case that put us on the map was the case representing 83 bankers suing the CommerzBank. It was a David-versus-Goliath case – these bankers against this huge bank owned by the German government. We did it on a partial [success fee], which not all firms would take. It was very much in the public eye, as bankers’ bonuses during the financial crisis was in the news.
We are very careful to manage client’s expectations, not least because we take a lot of risks in cases ourselves. There’s a huge mood change among clients who want you to buy in and take the risk as well. We take that very cautiously and if we don’t think a case is great, we will absolutely not do it. So we haven’t had any horrible disasters.
We’ve had some Russian clients who thought litigation was some kind of Olympic sport. That’s fine, you can treat it like that, but if we tell you the chances of success are 20%, that’s up to you.
The funniest thing I’ve seen in the court: we were cross-examining a deeply-orthodox Jewish fraudster who had stolen £8m. He was a gambling addict and put his money on horses, so we were cross-examining him to find out where the money had gone. The defendant turned to the late Justice Laddie (who was also Jewish), and it was getting late on a Friday and he said: ‘My Lord, I’ve got to go home now. It’s the Sabbath.’ And the judge, to his eternal credit, said: ‘Yeah, but have you thought about the eighth commandment? Thou shalt not steal?’
Stewarts is in a period of consolidation. We don’t want to expand for expansion’s sake. But equally you have to move forward. We have absolutely no intention of not being a litigation-only firm. We make lateral hires very selectively. It’s a time for organic growth. We need to grow some of our smaller departments, like arbitration, trust and probate litigation, tax litigation and competition. Those are the bits we’re going to focus on expanding. We’ll carry on selectively taking risks in cases. We have an investment committee; we take it more seriously than other firms who take on CFAs and DBAs [damages-based agreements] with dollar-signs in their eyes thinking ‘the future’s bright’.
I can’t see us merging. Anything that would create conflict for us would be bad news. I want to be able to sue every bank. The only bank I’m not allowed to sue is Clydesdale, because we bank with them. They’re off limits. We actually had trouble working out who to bank with, considering we’ve upset nearly every bank. We couldn’t bank with RBS or Barclays. It would be unthinkable.
The future is finding our place in the market. The big guys are getting bigger, which is good for us because it means more conflicts. The firms that are facing the squeeze are the medium-sized and smaller ‘all things to all people’ firms.
I’ve got to carry on pedalling because my three children want to be kept in the same lifestyle to which they are accustomed. I can imagine getting involved in some kind of advisory, mediation or consultancy. I’m not going to play golf – I hate golfers, I hate golf courses and I hate everything to do with golf. You’re not allowed to do sliding tackles in golf. I play football twice a week – five-a-side so it’s all over the place.
I might do more journalism. Have a look at my website: complainer.com. My daughter is a sports journalist. She writes about winter sports and surfing. So she’s the mutant offspring from the real me, doing what I really wanted to do, and I’m living that through her.
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