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10 January 2014
Hextall Erskine insurance partner John Startin enthuses about the future for insurance lawyers. At a time when many of them are worried about panel cuts and an increasingly competitive market, Startin's face cracks into a mask of excitement while his hands make animated gestures at the mere mention of the subject.
This is partly because of the character of the man himself, but also because he has high hopes for his latest brainchild - his proposal to team Hextall Erskine with both a US and a French firm to cover insurance clients on an international level has just been put into action (The Lawyer 10 May).
It is a far-reaching plan. Its intention is to offer clients a cross-border service in this age of multinational companies and IT developments.
At the moment the partnership involves Hextall Erskine, US firm Clausen Miller PC and French firm La Giraudiore Larroze & Associes.
But Startin has plans for it to expand into Spain and Italy: "At this time they are ripe for commercial development."
Startin believes that firms which do not follow suit will fall behind. He says: "IT is the driving force behind our development. Clients are on top of it, and it makes communication so much easier between all parties and their representatives. It is now time for insurance lawyers to become more sophisticated."
The arrangements between the three firms mean that while all must be fully committed to the alliance, no profits are shared. It is a loose relationship, but one that should result in the smooth transition of advising the same client from one country to the next.
When Startin is asked why this firm of only 21 partners is the first to start an international initiative of this kind, he looks perplexed. His only explanation is that he just came up with the idea.
To him it seemed like a natural progression. He says that any firm could have set it into action, and he is surprised that none of them have done so. His blueprint for the partnership was teams of French firms known as "groupement d'interet economique" which started to align in 1988 when the need came for representing clients across the country.
But it is likely that Startin's personality also contributed to the formulation of the plan. At first he seems energetic and utterly engrossed in the subject matter when he talks, but underneath the veneer he is unorthodox and self-effacing.
While he is undoubtedly a risk taker, Startin is not interested in promoting his own interests.
In fact, he is remarkably evasive when it comes to explaining why he made the jump from criminal lawyer to commercial litigator when he joined Hextall Erskine in 1981 and his subsequent evolution into an insurance partner - a post he has held for the past 12 years.
Startin doesn't think this transition was risky or unorthodox, but many people would say the gap between a criminal lawyer and a commercial litigator is as vast as that between a vet and a brain surgeon.
Speaking about his past, he says that it involved "running around the magistrates' courts" and says he enjoyed advocacy, but then deflects any further discussion on the subject. He only concedes that he simply decided one day that he wanted to go into commercial law and has not considered life outside Hextall Erskine since.
Get him back on the subject of the international alliance and Startin springs back into action as if a ventriloquist has put his hand back in the dummy. His tone of voice alters into one of interest, confidence, and excitement again.
He dismisses the notion that there have been any cultural difficulties with the alliance. "There are no problems attached to our teaming up. Similar cultures exist between the firms and our clients," he says.
He adds: "We are very compatible and all of us are fully committed. Now the time is right for this partnership, and it will work." Startin is so ebullient that it is hard not to believe him.