Any time, any place, anywhere?

John Dickey

The sanctified surroundings of a deconsecrated church and rectory is an unusual location to find any law firm or lawyer, particularly a London-based litigation partner for one of the leading New York firms.

John Dickey's career has taken him from Missouri, where both his father and grandfather were trial lawyers, to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and back to the US for Harvard Law School before joining New York firm Sullivan & Cromwell in 1954, where he still practises, albeit London-based. And as he approaches his fortieth year with Sullivans, Dickey's work has increasingly been for major-league UK and European-based clients involved in business or litigation in the US, and US clients with UK or European law problems.

"Much of our clients' litigation is against other large companies. Much of the rest is against governments, which are the biggest Goliaths of all," he comments.

Until January last year, the majority of his time was spent in New York, but his involvement in cases such as British Airways (BA) and Virgin Airlines, British Telecom, and National Westminster Bank (NatWest) and Maxwell, together with matters for Goldman Sachs and Swiss and German banks, means he now spends almost 70 per cent of his time in London while retaining a New York office.

With the recent settlement of one of the three outstanding cases between BA and Virgin, where both sides claimed victory, the arena has been moved to New York and it seems the proportion of time Dickey spends in either office may have to be reversed again.

Dickey says the New York case is a "straightforward" US anti-trust case about markets, competition with transatlantic carriers, issues of national and international aviation policy and US jurisdiction. He expects the case to proceed on a "less personal basis" than in the UK and "without vitriol or vituperation". He says: "It is hard to get emotionally involved in issues like this."

His involvement with BA arose in 1983 when the airline was in the process of privatisation and was seeking legal advisers post-Laker. As Sullivans was already advising the US side of the privatisation, it seemed natural for the firm and Dickey to carry out a review of the UK airline's practices, and take on the litigation work where the US and UK elements overlapped.

Sullivans' London presence has increased substantially in the last few years, and it is envisaged there will soon be almost 30 lawyers in the former Wren church, rectory and adjacent buildings in Ironmonger Lane. Dickey is one of the four litigators, which is unusual given that most US lawyers in the UK practise in the areas of corporate and securities law. He comments: "The two systems, although they have peculiar differences, deal with the same problems and have the same objectives, with the same kind of approach to litigation and usually reach the same conclusions. Shaw notwithstanding, we do in fact speak the same language."

And "in moments of nostalgia and fancy", he sees himself as a rider of the international circuit, serving clients' needs for lawyers experienced in advising on matters of forum selection, choice of law and conflict of laws. He adds: "There are relatively few of us who do this kind of thing. We are likely to turn up almost anywhere in the world and likely there to find old friends and old adversaries working with us or against us."

Linklaters & Paines litigation partner John Turnbull, who is working with Dickey on cases such as NatWest and Maxwell, comments he has "never encountered anyone with a wider knowledge of jurisdictional disputes".

Dickey admits he has never aspired to be a judge but prefers instead the variation of litigation practice and the adversarial system whether it is in court or at the negotiating table, and whether with US attorneys, UK solicitors and barristers, or lawyers worldwide. But he adds he is still a little awed by the Inns of Court and barristers' chambers, and confesses one of the things he most covets is a horse hair wig – if only for London practice. "Maybe in another life," he says.

Dickey now considers both New York and London as home, despite being burgled in London last year. Miraculously, almost all of his possessions were returned – perhaps the firm's presence in a church has been blessed.