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If the terrorists who attacked Mumbai last month wanted to strike at the heart of India’s international business community, then they chose their targets well. Law firms have been left counting the human cost of those attacks, with Stephenson Harwood the worst hit of all.
Four of the firm’s lawyers were caught up in the carnage. Lo Hwei Yen, a 28-year-old shipping associate in Stephensons’ Singapore office, was killed after being taken hostage in the Oberoi Hotel. She was one of almost 200 people who lost their lives.
Stephensons chief Sunil Gadhia travelled to Singapore and spent much of last week at the office consoling and supporting the lawyers there, as well as attending Yen’s funeral service.
Baker & McKenzie also had two lawyers trapped in the Oberoi, while Field Fisher Waterhouse (FFW) partners Mark Abell and Christopher Jackson barricaded themselves in their rooms for the full 40 hours of the siege. Abell made a name for himself during his ordeal, giving eyewitness interviews to the national media. He appeared on television, radio and in newspapers describing how he had survived on two bottles of water with no sleep or food during the attacks.
He told The Lawyer: “After dinner I was talking to some Japanese businessmen, waiting for the lift [in the lobby]. The lifts are usually very slow, but that day they were fast. I got the lift up to my room and after about 10 minutes I heard a big blast. I think one of the Japanese men was killed in the blast. What I’ve been through is really nothing.”
The legal market did not react kindly to Abell’s media appearances, accusing him of name-dropping his firm in interviews outside the legal press. It seems Abell’s reputation as a keen evangelist for FFW has been cemented.
Around 50 TheLawyer.com readers posted comments on our coverage of his time under siege and after his escape. Many accused him of opportunism. If, indeed, this is the case and Abell was trying to somehow spin the terror attacks into positive publicity for his firm, then it would have been a futile exercise anyway.
Very few people who tuned in to Radio 4’s Today programme to get their fix of news would have taken a mental note of his law firm. It is harder still to imagine Abell winning work off the back of the attacks, despite his blanket coverage in national media.
Abell was not the only one to tell his story. Jamie Benson, a lawyer at US firm Dorsey & Whitney’s London office, wrote in to give a detailed description of his ordeal in the Oberoi. Like Abell, Benson was on the 23rd floor of the hotel. He was stuck in a room with four other men, all from different countries.
The threat of fire, rather than armed terrorists, was uppermost in his mind. “As we were locked and barricaded in the room, I wasn’t too concerned about terrorists getting into the room,” he related. “My main concern was the hotel catching fire – I’d seen the Taj on fire early on Thursday morning.
“I was on the 23rd floor, so jumping out of the window wasn’t an option. I was very scared when I got a report saying that the Oberoi’s roof was on fire and there were small fires in the Trident. Luckily, these fires didn’t spread.” At first glance the number of lawyers caught up in the Mumbai attacks is surprising. But lawyers have been caught up in terrorist attacks before, most notably in New York seven years ago.
If Western-style capitalism remains the target of terrorism, then it is realistic to think that lawyers will be in the firing line again at some point in the future.