Focus: Travel, Journeys into the unknown

Business class. Frequent flyer miles. Luxury hotels. ­Private jets. ­Chauffeur-driven cars. These are some of the images that may spring to mind when you think of business travel.
As partners in international law firms know only too well, clocking up your fair share of air miles to meet with clients will take up a huge chunk of your time. It is a glamorous image that is attached to the jetset lifestyle, and it is true that most of the time you will be treated like royalty.

I have even heard someone spout the words: “I’ve dyed my hair ­platinum blonde again. I just feel more coordinated when my hair matches my corporate credit card.”

But it is not all Molton Brown ­freebies, ­cashmere flight socks and Hermès travel bags, particularly for non-partner lesser beings. Sometimes you can find yourself in a nightmare situation all in the name of your firm.

Airy situations

For example, how would you deal with being dropped in Kazakhstan as a trainee and be expected to ­navigate your way around the ­country with only the help of a local guide?

Or what would you do if you walked out of the airport only to find that your secretary had booked you on a flight to Amman and not Oman as intended?

Amjad Hussain, head of banking and ­Islamic finance for Eversheds in the Middle East, admits that his very first internal flight in Saudi, from Jeddah to Riyadh, still sends shivers down his spine.

“I checked in all fine in Riyadh,” he relates. “The flight was comfortable and I arrived into Riyadh at just after midnight.” But by the time he picked up his luggage and came out of the airport people were turning the lights off. “A bit strange, I thought. I got out and it was pitch black. I looked for signs for a taxi rank – there were none.”

Trying not to panic, Hussain asked one of the attendants where he could get a cab. He was told that there were none as he was in the private wing of the airport.

“At that point I realised I was in trouble. I went in to see if I could call a taxi or car, but no one could ­understand me and I had no ­numbers for anyone I could call at that time of night,” he says.

Hussain then saw a man on his mobile phone telling off his driver for keeping him waiting. Deciding the mystery man was his only chance of escape from a night under the desert stars, he befriended him and managed to hitch a lift to the nearest hotel.

“My knight in shining armour became my first client in Riyadh. He still reminds me about how he ’saved my life’, especially when I want to bill him,” Hussain laughs.

Near misses

Even travelling to countries as close to the UK as France can throw up all sorts of cultural mishaps. DLA Piper ­corporate partner Paul Pignatelli remembers when he was only a few years post-qualified and was trying to ­complete the acquisition of a French ­company with a host of lawyers and accountants in Paris.

“Naiveté on my part had allowed me to be thrown into this situation without any other partner or lawyer from my firm, and I was holding my own on the technical French until we broke for lunch,” he recalls.

After sitting down in the office’s restaurant, with 270° views of the Arc de Triomphe and Place de la ­Concorde, he was forced to tuck in to a steak that was served blue. “The biff-baff searing of an animal – which only needed cursory ­attention from a vet to get it back on its legs – ­didn’t entirely work for me,” he says.

Not being able to eat it, Pignatelli turned to what he calls a “scene straight out of Mr Bean” and started to hide bits of his steak in his ­napkin in a bid to fool his clients into ­thinking he could stomach such rare meat.

It was not until he got to the ­airport bar that his food trickery was exposed.

“I just remember the man next to me, and various others, moving quickly away as, with a bottle of ­Kronenbourg in one hand, I went to sneeze, took out my handkerchief and dropped half a pound of red steak on the floor,” he says.

Lawyer mania

Working away from home need not always throw up Bridget Jones-style tales of embarrassment. Sometimes being a lawyer has its advantages and in some parts of the world even ­elevates you to celebrity status.
Herbert Smith partner Chris ­Parsons certainly got a taste of ­stardom when, on a trip to India, he was invited to visit a law faculty in the remote tribal district of Nandurbar.

“Arriving in each village was ­probably the closest I’ll ever get to ­feeling like royalty,” recalls ­Parsons. “Each time we got out of the car the whole village would turn out to greet me and present me with garlands and gifts, and I got my own ­experience of being followed by paparazzi, with my photograph ­making the front page of two local newspapers the next day.”

Thanks to the continued ­internationalisation of law firms, the highs and lows of business travel will continue to be a feature of a legal career. And with Allen & Overy’s ­Australia launch heralding the start of some seriously long long-haul work trips, there is a host of travel tales from Down Under waiting to be told.

Even advising a client defending a hostile village green application can leave you feeling decidedly A-list, as Berwin Leighton Paisner ­partner Tim Smith found a few years ago when his client flew him down to Cornwall by helicopter from ­Battersea Heliport.

“We landed on the site itself and then saw it from the air, as well as on the ground. On the way back we took a small detour to fly over the Eden Project before heading home,” he says.

But never mind mere business trips – many would-be lawyers choose their firms on the promise of overseas secondments.

To find out how trainees deal with living and working in foreign ­countries, visit the new ’Postcard from…’ series on

John Wright, joint head of construction and engineering, Bird & Bird

My most memorable business trip was undoubtedly one to Cuba some while ago.

It all started with the flight from Madrid to Havana, during which a severe electrical storm caused the plane to lurch continuously amid ­extraordinary thunder and lightning.

During this ­rollercoaster the meal arrived, which included an innocuous-looking yellow vegetable. It turned out to be the most vicious chilli known to man. It took me hours to recover.
Once in Havana we had a 200-mile transfer south to a modern hotel by the sea – things were looking up.

However, I soon learnt this locale was a haven for large and very hairy long-legged insects, which flew with ­alarming speed directly towards you.

During the eight-week stay I also soon realised that our ’ideal’ room position – near both the sea and the saltwater pool – ­included the daily migration of the crab population, which crept beneath my door to access either the sea or pool – hazardous during early-morning starts.

Due to the isolation of the hotel we had to always eat at the hotel restaurant, whose menu was rather ­limited, ­consisting only of pork. After weeks of a pork diet, one evening there was a rumour that pizza would be on offer. We duly ordered, but more than an hour later a waiter came to say that pizza was off and the only thing left was pork.

The hotel was very close to a prestigious fertiliser plant, which was the reason for our visit. Unfortunately Fidel Castro (pictured) and his entourage arrived at the hotel to inspect the plant and all the other guests had to leave immediately. I was ordered out of my room with a soldier ­levelling a submachine gun at me and it was only after making some rather anxious calls that we were able to relocate to another hotel.

Finally reaching the end of the trip, I set off for Havana Airport with a UK barrister.

Unfortunately, about halfway to the airport, the car careered off the road into a sugar cane field and the barrister was slightly injured.

Although I escaped unscathed the trip ­certainly left me with a certain apprehension about any return visits.

Ben Holland, energy partner, CMS Cameron McKenna

My recent trip to the Middle East in August 2009 was, for a number of reasons, the most memorable by far.

We had been instructed a few weeks previously by a leading international oil and gas drilling services company on a dispute concerning an oil rig. The company that had hired it to drill offshore had stopped paying.

The matter began intensively and we set to analysing the facts and providing advice to our client about what to do.

Many people were on board with nothing to do and costing a lot each day.

The next step was to interview the members of the oil rig’s crew who had been involved in the events that had led to the problem. As the majority of these individuals were still working on board the rig, it was sensible for us all to travel to the Middle East. I received a call from my client saying that it would be best for my team to stay aboard as the interviewees were still on shifts. I knew this was going to be no ordinary business trip.

So my team and I, consisting of Rachel Withers, Georgina O’Sullivan and Hussain Kubba, flew out to the rig. On arrival we received some funny looks from the security gate as probably the most unusual rig workers ever seen.

There were various jokes that we looked like undertakers, dressed in suits in the 40° heat. We were soon ordered into jeans and T-shirts.

It soon became clear, however, that the rig was very comfortable and modern. The size of the rig was a surprise.

We had to wear hard hats and bright-orange jumpsuits. We were checked into our cabins, which were surprisingly comfortable, and settled in for our first night.

After a breakfast fit for an oil worker from the canteen we were given a tour. We inspected many of the pieces of equipment we had been reading about for the past few weeks, which gave us an invaluable insight into the daily working of the rig.

We were also allowed to sit in the ’driller’s chair’, which controls almost 12,000ft of drill hanging into the seabed.

After three days of witness interviews it was time to leave our temporary home.

Feeling almost a part of the crew we were treated to a real sendoff – a barbecue on the helipad. It was a great way to end what was undoubtedly my most memorable business trip.

A few weeks later we commenced arbitration proceedings on behalf of our client at the London Court of International Arbitration.

As getting to understand your client’s business is a key aim, this was a useful and unforgetable experience.

The feature first appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Lawyer 2B