Mad dogs and English lawyers

Lawyers abroad take their lives in their hands, and a foot out of place in an Islamic country can cost you a deal. Chris Dignan walks lightly through the manners' minefield facing those who ply their trade in dangerous climes.

The end of Soviet communism, thawing relations with Arab states and increasing globalisation mean Western lawyers now work in areas that would not be their first choice to visit for a holiday.

There is a rich seam of business to be mined in emerging economies. Those who get there first stand a better chance of establishing a reputation and attracting the big deals in the future.

But the rewards come at a price.

John Hyden worked for Sinclair Roche & Temperley based in Moscow as a consultant legal specialist. The Scotsman had one more meeting scheduled with a colleague before he was due to fly back to Britain one February afternoon and was waiting in a St Petersburg hotel coffee house.

With an air ticket in his pocket, he was drinking his coffee when a gang of Russian Mafia walked in and sprayed the room with bullets.

Their target was a local businessman. He survived. But Hyden, 41, and married with two stepchildren, was hit by a stray bullet and killed.

In another murder, a Russian client was shot dead two years ago in a set-up after being asked to meet someone out of town.

New businesses opening in the region are often prey to protection racketeers, and the Ukrainian offices of US firm Squire Sanders & Dempsey played reluctant hosts to the local Mafia recently.

A gang of hoodlums paid staff a visit and insisted they would not leave until they were paid protection money. One of the secretaries managed to make a sly phone call from a side office without the gang noticing. She rang her boyfriend, a member of the Ukrainian special forces.

He rushed over with a few colleagues and they stormed the building, smashing through the windows, and captured the gang.

Hyden had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time on that tragic day in 1996. The incident concentrated the minds of city firms who realised that the secret of safety while working in Russia and other countries riven by gang warfare and political instability was to avoid the wrong place and the wrong time as far as possible.

Many now take discreet steps to ensure their employees are protected while having the freedom to carry out their business.

Kevin Dean, head of company and commercial law at Sinclair Roche & Temperley, says: "However you brief someone before they go abroad, you wouldn't have thought of saying: 'Don't sit in a coffee house in a five-star hotel in case someone shoots you.'

"You have to find out as much as possible about the country before sending people out there. You must do your homework and understand the possible dangers, the political make-up and find out how to help.

"We contact the British Embassy and speak to local lawyers on the dos and don'ts."

Rules of thumb include staying within the city centre and not straying to the edges, do not wander the streets exploring the city on the way home after staying late in the office. Also, most firms have a policy of ensuring that someone tells a colleague where they will be, for how long and how to contact them.

Dean's firm also try to find a "Mr Fixit" who can sort out problems and give timely advice to Western lawyers who may unknowingly put themselves in danger.

"Foreign lawyers can be targeted in Russia, and one piece of advice we took was not to look like a lawyer by travelling around in a Mercedes and wearing a Savile Row suit."

Michael Sussman is an old hand at how to avoid trouble in Russia. He has been at the Moscow office for Squire Sanders & Dempsey for more than six years.

"We meet people at the airport, use drivers who are streetwise and make sure people don't end up going to meetings or their apartments by walking the streets or using public transport.

"I have clients in the oil industry who have bodyguards who shield their employer as we walk from the car into a building. They're big guys.

"When my family was over here, we had all the post and deliveries – including the compulsory bottled water – sent to my offices and not the home address. One of the drivers would then bring it round."

Russian cities are still very volatile places because the ramshackle economic situation means that workers often do not get paid for a long time or are paid in kind. Several Western law firms have downsized or moved out altogether because the risks are too high and the business opportunities are diminishing.

"Moscow is the sort of place that could suddenly explode," says Sussmann. "Something could set the people off, and Westerners could be targeted because there is an underlying concern among the people that Westerners are taking over their country."

Sussman continues to work in Russia despite the recent spate of bombings of apartment blocks in the city.

Sometimes the locals will step in and help out, as Joe Markoski, telecoms partner with Squire Sanders & Dempsey found out. He boarded a train from Budapest to Belgrade during the Bosnian war, when the US was extremely unpopular with Serbs, and settled down in a first-class carriage.

"A porter came to the carriage door carrying a steel bar. I thought this was it, that he was going to beat me up. He just said it was very unsafe and used the bar to wedge the door shut from the inside to stop people getting in."

Another hazard to watch out for in foreign climes is in business. Overseas businessmen with shady backgrounds often hope to use unwitting City firms to launder their money and the lawyer in the field is the one who has to judge whether someone is legitimate.

"It is a danger that not all transactions are kosher," says Dean from his firm's office in Bucharest.

"If you get caught up with one doubtful client or transaction, that will destroy your entire goodwill and reputation. But experience teaches you how to spot the dodgy ones."

Berrymans Lace Mawer is considering setting up in Tehran and is in talks with local firms about possible joint ventures, while Trowers & Hamlins is interested in forming an association with at least one local firm there.

Jason Blick, head of Berrymans' Dubai office, has experience in dealing with Moslem regions and says that entering sensitive new territories must be done with care. Tehran has seen a spate of kidnappings of tourists, but it is also easy to offend a client or other locals if you don't know what you are doing.

His firm has a six to 10-week programme of briefing lawyers going to foreign countries.

"The programme deals with the law, but just as importantly it is also about the culture and how to live there. You have to be culturally aware in Moslem countries and know about the Koran etc.

"For instance, you would not expose the sole of your shoe to a Moslem, even when sitting down, as this is considered insulting.

"A man would not walk down the street in a pair of shorts, and a woman would not even show her ankles."

This could trigger a hostile reaction, but more usually someone would approach the person in the offending attire and ask them to cover up.

"However, in Saudi Arabia the religious police can get excitable," says Blick.

He said cultural awareness not only keeps a lawyer out of trouble but helps improve the relationship with the client.

"If someone was technically qualified to do a particular job at a foreign office but lacked cultural appreciation, then they would stand little chance of being sent out," says Blick, who adds that just as many UK and US women lawyers are sent to Moslem countries as men nowadays as they are now more accepted by clients compared to 10 years ago.

A partner from one UK firm working in Ghana made an enormous faux pas when he was waiting outside a court and was bursting to go to the toilet. He nipped off and came back to tell his colleague he had found a good place.

It turned out to be the local mosque.

His colleague says: "That was off the scale but fortunately nobody had seen him."

Experienced lawyers working abroad say research and common sense are the best security measure they can take and reduces the feeling of being threatened.

One UK partner who has worked extensively abroad says: "Quite frankly, it was more dangerous when I worked in Liverpool."