Lorenzo Zurbrugg aims to cut across barriers dividing legal cultures

Specialising in foreign personal injury (PI) cases, this two-partner London-based firm acts mostly for insurers, with 70 per cent of its work coming from a combination of UK insurers with litigation abroad and foreign insurers that have litigation in the UK. The other 30 per cent of its workload comes from private clients suffering accidents around the world. Its turnover is in excess of £1.5m.
Managing partner Michael Zurbrugg considers the firm's greatest strength to be its language skills and its ability to bridge the gap between legal cultures. He says: “There will be moves towards a greater harmonisation of legal systems, but it will be slow. Lawyers are rather conservative in many respects and reluctant to give up their own legal systems.”
Zurbrugg, a language graduate who became both qualified and a partner in 1981, speaks French and German. Partner José Maria De Lorenzo, a registered European lawyer, is Spanish and so has access to work involving South America. He joined the firm 10 years ago. Other members of the team have additional languages.
According to Zurbrugg, competition for foreign PI work is likely to remain limited for the foreseeable future. “We aren't, as a nation, great linguists. The client who goes to his local solicitor with a story about an incident in France may immediately have a language difficulty. You also need the in-depth knowledge of the mentality, the way of dealing with cases, the different approach to litigation.”
With more people travelling more often and to more exotic places, much of the firm's work comes directly as a result of differing legal cultures and the lack of public understanding of the differences. As Zurbrugg explains: “We're involved in acting for a young girl who was recently paralysed following an accident in Turkey. The maximum compensation was about £2,000. We go abroad and often make assumptions about what may be the case without appreciating what can happen. I had an MP on the phone asking what I was going to do. I said, 'I'm a mere solicitor, you're the legislator. What are you going to do?'”
Any expansion at the firm is likely to be slow as Zurbrugg is happy for his firm to remain at a modest size. “The insurance world has experienced difficulties and is more fee-conscious when looking at legal expense budgets. There's always pressure from that source to monitor fees and control costs,” he explains.
The firm is acting in the first reported case under the Private International Law Miscellaneous Provisions Act 1995. Zurbrugg says: “The English courts had to determine what was the applicable law for an accident in Spain involving two British nationals. It will be a multimillion-pound case.”
Zurbrugg's client sustained brain damage, and although the general rule is that the law applicable should be that of where the accident takes place, the court decided in November 2000 that under this new provision, English law was more appropriate. This was essentially because both parties were English and the effects of the incident and the cost of treatment were going to be suffered in this country.
Other clients include Capita Assistance and Europe Assistance. Zurbrugg is also advising the parents of the victims of the Dijon coach crash.