Specialist firms break with tradition to take on banks

Upstarts step out of the ’conflict shadows’ to boldly go where the magic circle fears to tread

New breed is putting financial institutions in the firing line
New breed is putting financial institutions in the firing line

A burgeoning class of firms prepared to litigate against banks has emerged, thanks to the polarisation of the market caused by the rise of litigation boutiques such as Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.

LG, Nabarro and Travers Smith have all rejected the position adopted by the magic circle and other large firms that litigation against banks is out of bounds.

LG dispute resolution partner James Curle, who is currently advising on a bank-on-bank case, said that because his firm’s ­”conflict shadow” is smaller than those of larger firms, LG is “making a virtue out of this”.

“We’re not and have never been anti-bank, but what we want to do is to be able to go to bank or fund clients and tell them that we can act where other firms may not be able to,” he said. “There are a number of banks we have no relationships with, and for the right fund or bank client we’ll be able to go adverse to those banks. We’re happy to take on bank-on-bank litigation where there’s no good ­business reason not to.”

Travers disputes partner Stephen Paget-Brown said his firm had been taking on more instructions against banks and is currently acting for Sebastian Holdings in a case against Deutsche Bank, having just settled a multibillion-pound asset claim for a Lehman Brothers trustee against Citibank.

“Some firms have taken the position that they won’t act against banks in litigation matters, but we see no reason to follow that course,” he said. “We’ve seen quite a lot of [litigation against banks] recently, but there’s a lot of these types of disputes that don’t even get on the radar because they end up in arbitration or being settled.”

The change in position has come as boutique practices such as Cooke Young & Keidan, Enyo, Stewarts Law and Quinn Emanuel have ridden a wave of bank-on-bank and fund-on-bank litigation that magic circle firms are unwilling to touch due to the large amount of non-contentious banking work they handle.

“There are three types of firms,” contended one partner at a litigation ­boutique. “Firms such as Quinn Emanuel, which are happy to shout about going after banks; firms that won’t act against banks under any circumstances; and an emerging category of firms, which will act against banks in certain situations, but don’t really like to talk about it so much.”