Hot 100 alumni: Sean Upson, Stewarts Law

Commercial litigator Sean Upson was named in the Hot 100 2008 for his work turning start-up banking disputes boutique Masseys into the go-to litigation firm for conflict referrals in the City.

Upson co-founded Masseys in 2004, leaving Baker & McKenzie, along with a group of partners, after almost 11 years at the firm.

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The decision to strike out alone, he says, was to “take charge of our own destinies”, though he adds that the “80/20 rule” then pervasive at Bakers – meaning 80 per cent of revenue was derived from 20 per cent of clients – also left the group of rising litigators wanting to take control of their own instructions.

“Masseys was immediately much more specialised,” Upson says, thanks to its focus on financial disputes.

The boutique grew in prominence and client wins until Upson was recognised in 2008 for ­“astutely positioning” the firm to take on major domestic and international disputes.

At the heart of Stewarts’ success

Almost eight years later and Upson’s career has changed dramatically. The two years after 2008 proved turbulent for Masseys, which split prior to being acquired by Stewarts Law in July 2010. Upson joined Stewarts as a partner as the firm was beginning to shape its commercial and banking litigation team.

The commercial litigation team had around 10 partners at the time of the takeover, far outnumbered by Stewarts’ personal injury and clinical negligence practices. However, the practice grew significantly over the next few years, eventually taking over as Stewarts’ largest and most profitable group.

“I joined Stewarts just after the financial crisis, when the scope for banking and commercial disputes was huge,” Upson says, adding the firm was proactive in its move to dominate the burgeoning space – a strategy that looks to have paid off, with the firm becoming one of the most profitable in London in the past few years.

Today, Upson’s practice area forms the core of Stewarts Law’s success and he works on some of the firm’s most high-profile cases.

He admits he has been “submerged” in financial disputes for most of the past few years. Upson led a team representing European investors taking RBS to task over hundreds of millions of pounds of mis-sold derivatives.

The case settled last year, allowing Upson to broaden his workload, though he clearly remains a fan of complex banking disputes. He took on an instruction for now-defunct Icelandic bank ­Kaupthing in its legal battle to sue Deutsche Bank for £300m.

The German bank advised Kaupthing prior to Iceland’s financial system going into meltdown and both institutions are embroiled in numerous court cases both locally and in the UK over alleged market manipulation and improper trading, as well as a Serious Fraud Office (SFO) probe.

The sensitive case has recently been stayed in the UK following a jurisdictional ruling that means it will be heard in Iceland.

Meanwhile, Upson has also been working on another case of ongoing interest to the SFO. The High Court action of Orb & Ors v Ruhan has proved to be a surreal case so far, centring on a claim brought by Orb to force property tycoon Andrew Ruhan to pay out £100m over an alleged oral business venture agreement. As the trial will likely take place over 30 weeks in 2017, the case is likely to take up much of Upson’s working life in the next year.

Links with funders

Most recently, Upson has led Stewarts to become the first firm to launch a claim against Tesco over its 2015 profit restatement. Upson started gathering claimants for the shareholder action early last year and finally sent a letter before action to the supermarket in January.

TL_150216-11His success so far on the case is, in part, due to his relationship with litigation funders. Bentham Europe is putting up a pot for the Tesco claim, while Harbour is on board for Orb.

“We use litigation funding on around 50 per cent of cases now,” Upson says.

Looking to the future, Upson sees his time being taken up with many more investor protection cases – something he maintains will be the “next big thing”.

A previous version of this article stated Gerald Smith was the claimant in Orb and ors v Ruhan. Stewarts Law’s client in this case is Orb.

Sean Upson, partner, Stewarts Law

A founding partner of four-year-old London litigation boutique Masseys, Upson is one of a new breed of litigators who have astutely positioned themselves as being able to take on disputes against financial institutions, as well as high-value litigation for corporates. Upson and his colleagues are rapidly becoming favourites among larger City firms on conflict referrals.

The Lawyer Hot 100, 2008