Alexandra Lofthouse, Berwin Leighton Paisner
Practice area focus: insurance/reinsurance
25 September 2009
What’s it all about?
Our insurance and reinsurance department works on all sorts of disputes that arise between the parties to insurance or reinsurance contracts. It may be worth explaining early on what reinsurance is. Reinsurance is when the insurer passes on some, or all, of the risk he has taken on by reinsuring part of his exposure on a policy to a third party, known as the reinsurer (effectively the insurer is insuring itself!).
Insurance contract terms state the various restrictions as to what is and is not covered by the policy. Disputes can arise as to how the terms of the insurance contract should be interpreted and whether it provides cover for a particular claim. Matters can be complicated further when there are other third parties involved in setting up the insurance contract, such as insurance brokers. Insurance disputes tend to either go down the court route or go to arbitration. The insurance contract may specify that arbitration is to be used as the means of settling an insurance dispute as it has the advantage of being a private process.
The work is really varied and tends to be a mixture of running your own cases and assisting on bigger matters. As a trainee, you are involved in all sorts of legal drafting such as witness statements and various court forms including the claim form and particulars of claim. When a new case starts, you will undertake the case analysis and try to highlight any gaps in your evidence, before deciding on the best claim to make. There tends to also be a fair amount of legal research to do as there are often numerous complex issues involved and there will always be legal questions that pop up. You will also liaise with counsel and draft your instructions to them as well as being in direct contact with the court office. There can also be a fair amount of document management work, such as organising documents for disclosure. There are opportunities to go to Court for hearings and trials or to attend arbitrations which are always exciting as you get to experience how each party’s counsel puts forward their strongest arguments and to see the cross-examination of witnesses.
I would definitely recommend doing a seat in the insurance and reinsurance department, not only because it is a great opportunity to develop a range of legal skills that will stand you in good stead for your career, but also because in my experience it is a really fun and sociable department to work in.
What is the working culture like in an insurance team?
Regardless of the level of the person you are working with, the most striking characteristic of our insurance team is the open-door culture and that everyone is approachable and happy to answer your questions. Our weekly workgroup meetings are also a great forum in which to raise any legal queries you may have or to generally discuss cases you are working on as well as hear about what other members of the group are doing. Everyone works hard and, at times, the department can be very busy but at no stage did I feel I couldn’t ask anyone for their help.
What is the typical makeup of an insurance lawyer’s client base?
Our clients tend to be large insurers and reinsurers including syndicates at Lloyd’s of London. We also act for insurance brokers, insured companies and occasionally for insured individuals. We often get referred work from other departments across the firm, but the majority of work comes direct from the department’s clients.
Which other practice areas do you work most closely with?
You can insure almost anything or anyone (within reason!), so there is a great deal of variety in the cases and you find yourself becoming an expert in numerous interesting areas. As a result, we work with various departments across the firm. On the whole, however, we have the most cross-over with corporate and commercial Litigation who work on similar high value claims so we tend to share know-how with each other.
What skills make a good insurance lawyer?
To be a good insurance lawyer, you need strong communication, negotiation, drafting and advocacy skills. You also need to develop the ability to analyse your client’s situation before deciding on their best claim going forward in light of their priorities. You need to be highly organised in order to keep on top of the various deadlines set by the court and the various cases that are running simultaneously. Being able to juggle work for lots of different fee earners is essential.
What impact has the recession had on your practice area?
Litigation work tends to be counter-cyclical, so during a recession there is often an increase in litigation work. The insurance press has recently speculated on a potential rise in financial institutions claims as a result of the Madoff and Stanford scandals, although there has yet to be many of these in England.
Which prominent insurance cases has your firm been involved in?
The department has worked on a number of claims relating to the Buncefield oil disaster, representing individuals and companies who lost their businesses and properties as a result of the 2005 explosion. The insurance team was also involved in claims arising from the attacks on the World Trade Centre.
What do you think will be the future shape of insurance departments?
The insurance department has grown steadily over the last five years by taking on newly qualified trainees and lateral hires, so there is now a full range of experience within the department. The department now also advises on compliance and regulatory issues, which are growth areas.
Which phrase is an insurance lawyer most likely to use and what does it mean?
There is quite a lot of technical jargon used in insurance and reinsurance and that takes some time to get to grips with! There’s no one phrase that stands out as essential, but you can always check any jargon on the Lloyd’s insurance glossary if you’re not sure.