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“A powerful ally and formidable foe”: What makes an effective litigation lawyer?

George Salmon

When the fate of your business hangs in the balance, having the right representation is essential.

From contract disputes to employment issues, there are a number of pitfalls that can derail, or even destroy, a business you have long built up. Without the right legal support, your situation can be even more perilous – expertise and experience are essential.

With a career spanning more than three decades, Frank Ryan has just this combination. As Director of the Vardags Civil Litigation Department, Frank has acted for both individuals and businesses, ranging from SMEs to global public companies. Typically dealing with multi-million pound claims, Franks department has amassed expertise in substantial and complex disputes, reassuring clients that their businesses, whether blue chip or SME, are in safe hands.

But what makes an effective litigation lawyer? The answer, according to Franks clients, rests on three central pillars – clarity of communication, adaptability and the ability to connect personally with whoever you represent.

An invaluable advocate and intimidating opponent

When Frank made the decision during his training to specialise in litigation, he had a simple aim – For me, being a lawyer, at its core, is helping people to resolve problems, he says.

If this is your aim, clarity of communication is key – both to understand where your client is coming from and to relay the best course of action. Fortunately, communication has always been a particular strength of Franks.

Jargon can be anathema to understanding: clear and concise language is a must. Franks ability to distil complex legal issues into easily understandable language is a trait neatly summarised by Kevin Offer, Partner and Head of Tax at Hardwick Morris: When clients come to lawyers, they do not want to be quoted cases and legislation; they come for concepts to be explained simply and directly. This has always been one of Franks strengths – explaining complex issues in words with one syllable.

While Frank would describe himself as a general civil and commercial litigation lawyer, he also has particular expertise in employment law, specifically contentious employment law. Indeed, such cases are often the ones he finds most rewarding. No matter the field of law, however, the importance of honest and robust advice does not change.

Franks honesty is one his greatest strengths, explains Brian Newman, Consultant General and Vascular Surgeon, For me, he is like an MRI scan – you may not always like what you see but at least you know whats there.

In highly charged disputes, your communication skills are not just limited to your client – you must also deal with the other side. Frank commands respect when dealing with the opposite side without ever raising his voice, says Kevin Offer, When you are facing him, it is the calmness and composure that can be most overpowering.

Finding a tailored solution for each client

In a field as varied as litigation, no two cases are the same and there is no identikit solution. Instead, each case must be judged on its merits and your legal tactics must be adapted accordingly – not every case needs to end in a set piece showdown in the courtroom.

Franks approach to cases, ranging from sexual harassment claims to wide-ranging commercial litigation, shares a common goal: finding the easiest, quickest and best solution for each client. While the goal may stay the same, the means to achieve it vary:

Even before the Woolf reforms of 1999, which asserted that litigation should be the last resort, I have always been keen to try Alternative Dispute Resolution at an early stage, Frank says.

It is all very well and good going to court and winning the day but this does not always work out as well as it could for the client. For instance, settlements can also cover a number of external issues or agreements which wouldnt be addressed at court and can provide further reassurances.

In other instances, particularly sexual harassment cases, the importance of the trial is entirely different. Often, in these circumstances, the trial is a crucial step in having your experience recognised and the day in court can be essential for closure. Different cases require different approaches. I never saw my job as maximising my earnings by always going to trial – it is always about finding a tailored solution for each client.

For Janet Weitz, one of Franks most loyal clients, it is this ability to stop a potentially costly and unnecessary case in its tracks that was most appreciated: Put simply, Frank knows his stuff and his honesty is backed up by a wealth of knowledge and experience. You really need that in litigation otherwise you can end up spending a lot of money and not getting anywhere. Sometimes, you just have to swallow your pride and not go further.

Connecting with clients

In order to devise the right strategy for each case, knowing your clients, their aims and their personalities is essential. Indeed, personal skills and rapport can be as key to maintaining relationships as success in the court room.

I have one client [a Japanese public company] who came to me on a recommendation because they were so unsatisfied with the personal relationships they had with their previous lawyers, explains Frank.

They had been working with a City firm and while they were wooed at the start, they were soon passed off to junior members of staff and the personal interactions faded away. I have an entirely different approach. Even if there are no immediate cases on the horizon, I will always keep in touch with my clients, chatting off the clock and acting as a trusted adviser. This way, when something does come up, they immediately know I am there to help.  

This personal touch has created long term relationships with clients, and, indeed, friendships – Because of the way Frank engenders trust, something based on his obvious integrity, I now view him as a friend, an accolade I dont often award to external lawyers, says Sylvia White.

An expert, not a veteran

Three decades in the field of law have shaped Franks methods but the experiences along the way, whether working odd jobs during university summers or dealing with multimillion pound cases later in his career, are no less important.

Time and experience have moulded his approach, as charted by Brian Newman, who first met Frank in the 1980s: As a younger man, Frank had a more aggressive approach – he could be a real Rottweiler. As he has gained experience he has mellowed and developed a more surgical approach, something I would call the art of masterly inactivity. Anyone can instigate action; it is the mark of experience to know when not to.

When you are potentially dealing with the fate of someones livelihood, personal understanding can be just as key as legal strategy – combining the two creates an invaluable advocate and an intimidating opponent.

Just dont call me a veteran, Frank warns, Ive never liked the sound of that.

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