A decade ago RPC hardly featured on the radar of hard-hitting City litigation firms. It is now one of the largest and most successful disputes firms in the City.
Tom Hibbert, global head of commercial disputes, concedes: ‘Seven to eight years ago were we an obvious choice for big-ticket commercial and financial litigation? Probably not.’ Hibbert, who joined the firm in 2009, has overseen a remarkable transformation, particularly on the commercial and banking disputes side of what is a wide-ranging disputes portfolio.
Key to RPC’s charge has been its banking litigation practice. While Magic and Silver Circle firms have been restricted by the conflicts other practices have generated, RPC has led with its litigation expertise and thus remains materially conflict free.
The boutiques and certain US firms offer competition to RPC, but as Hibbert points out: ‘They struggle to compete when a fully-rounded service is required. How are they going to restructure a commercial arrangement? What if a new transaction is required as part of the settlement? Part of a settlement may involve a part sale – boutiques don’t have the breadth of practice to do that.’
Hibbert also points to the team’s commercial approach as a real differentiator between RPC and some of the new entrant disputes specialists. ‘Ultimately clients want to settle cases. We manoeuvre them into the best possible position for a sensible settlement discussion. Others can be over aggressive and difficult to deal with. There is a difference between taking your client’s corner and being too aggressive to deal with.’ The point is echoed by head of commercial litigation, Geraldine Elliott: ‘Litigation is a strategy to achieve a client’s goals, not an end in itself.’ This commerciality is central to RPC’s approach.
David Cran of the firm’s 40-strong intellectual property (IP)/media/technology group reinforces these points. The group’s work spans transactions from outsourcing, system integration, software and digital agreements to the disputes that inevitably arise from such agreements, as well as high-profile media work, including privacy and defamation, IP infringement, confidential information, data and licence disputes.
Cran is clear that the team has a unique place in the market. IP and tech specialist firms just do not have comparable disputes expertise and scale, while the boutiques cannot match RPC’s technical expertise and understanding of the technologies. ‘Our disputes expertise, be it in the High Court or in arbitration, is central to our proposition. A dispute about an exclusive IP licence could, for example, give rise to complex derivative actions around enforcing a shareholders agreement – not many firms can support their clients throughout the entire dispute.’
On fees, the firm has been at the forefront of devising and delivering on conditional-fee agreements and damages-based agreements – success uplifts, third-party funding and capped and fixed fees are all in the mix. The firm has also been at the leading edge of the debate around disclosure reform. In a bid to deliver greater cost certainty to clients, it has developed its own proprietary-fee estimate tool, an area of weakness its competitors are frequently castigated for. And they have been at the heart of embracing the power of modern technology in litigation. It was the Pyrrho Investments Ltd & anor v MWB Property Ltd & ors case – in which the RPC team acted – that paved the way for the acceptance of disclosure through predictive coding in the English civil courts.
The firm now boasts an enviable client list across a broad range of sectors. From hedge funds, major European banks and asset managers through to luxury goods, major retailers and high-street brands, publishers and broadcasters, and a notable selection of tech giants. As Cran states: ‘The team is doing market-leading work and the cases are second to none.’
This rapid development has not just been in the UK. In Asia the firm has made huge strides. The demands of the firm’s insurance clients and the growing importance of Singapore as an insurance hub drove RPC’s decision to open there in the early part of the decade; it has now developed that office to cover the full range of dispute resolution services, including litigation, international arbitration and mediation, not least since the joint legal venture with local firm Premier Law went live in 2016.
In Hong Kong in August 2012, the firm took the bulk of the local Barlow Lyde & Gilbert team to open with a full book that mirrors its London offering. Like Singapore, Hong Kong also now offers the full range of disputes services, including investigations and contentious regulatory expertise.
In both jurisdictions the firm has succeeded in cultivating a reputation for top-tier disputes work. Jonathan Cary, who joined in 2013, has been one of the forces behind RPC’s growth in the region. He spent three years in the Hong Kong office, helping build out the practice, and retuned to London last year. Cary sums up the project: ‘We are building something very special in Asia. We now have the ability to offer local law advice in three of the leading common-law jurisdictions [England, Hong Kong and Singapore] and can offer services – particularly on the financial disputes side – that none of the other international firms are able to provide.’
The RPC global litigation team has grown as much through internal promotion as through strategic lateral hiring. Elliott is clearly proud of the pipeline of internal talent that the firm is nurturing. ‘Litigation is the heart of our business, and we have a clear focus on internal development and recruiting the best.’
The RPC partners are as one in pressing home the need and giving firm examples of how understanding and working in a client’s commercial interests is more important than winning a fight for the sake of winning a fight. But do not mistake that for a soft touch. As Elliott says: ‘There are others who want to play games. We are interested only in our client’s business goals. We know the games. We can play the games if we need to, but we don’t need to shout to be heard.’
The working parts
Having no material conflicts has undoubtedly helped RPC become one of the few go-to firms when considering a banking case. But the team rejects any notion of being ‘anti-bank’. ‘Our clients are hedge funds, asset managers, fund managers and major banks, including international and global banks. These organisations are sophisticated users of litigation as a business tool. They need lawyers who understand their business and its commercial drivers,’ states Hibbert.
‘Litigation is the heart of our business. On any given day 75% of our people are litigating in one way or another.’
Tom Hibbert, RPC
Magic and Silver Circle firms will typically be on the other side to RPC. The team won a huge amount of financial crisis-related work and, although we now appear to be seeing the end of these disputes, Hibbert sees no end to litigation in the sector. Because of its broad financial sector client base, the firm appears to be well insulated should the oft-predicted fall in bank vs bank litigation materialise.
The award-winning team includes former senior members of HMRC’s Solicitor’s Office, including practice head Adam Craggs. Understanding the inner working of HMRC – what strategies it uses during tax enquiries and in litigation and how to secure the best outcomes for clients – promotes RPC to a very small number of firms who can handle the top-end civil and criminal defence work.
Unlike many of its competitors, RPC does not suffer from potential conflicts of interest in undertaking contentious tax matters as it does not devise or advise on tax-planning arrangements and does not therefore have a vested interest in defending a tax position. It will only defend those cases that are defendable. It has also become the go-to firm for judicial review challenges to HMRC decisions founded on public law arguments.
With HMRC taking an increasingly aggressive stance towards taxpayers due to political pressure to increase the tax yield and an increase in ‘dawn raids’ and ‘invitations’ to attend police interviews under caution, the work of the group and the size of the team continues to grow. The team has developed a number of strategies to maximise the prospects of its clients reaching a favourable settlement with HMRC and thus avoid litigation.
The team led by Lambros Kilaniotis works on matters spanning commercial antitrust disputes, competition investigations and appeals, and private damages actions, acting for both claimants and defendants. Kilaniotis joined RPC in 2013 with a mandate to grow the team, which now stands at six partners.
He stresses the importance of bringing commercial acumen as well as pure legal skills to the table. On the claimant side, the team is alive to the sensitivities and opportunities presented by any ongoing commercial relationships with defendants, and seeks to ensure successful outcomes for clients without disrupting those relationships. On the defence side, ‘some settlements’, Kilaniotis explains, ‘pay for themselves’ and he can point to cases where the RPC team helped a defendant generate new business from claimants, not just settle.
The team frequently acts as the coordinator of a number of firms across the world. This ‘quarterback’ role is vital when engaging with cross-border investigations and disputes.
Contentious restructuring and insolvency
An increasingly important part of the RPC armoury, the contentious restructuring team is another beneficiary of the firm’s conflict policy, and this has led to extensive experience of acting for parties in significant contentious restructurings and insolvencies, where the clients’ interests are adverse to those of the largest investment banks.
Whether acting for an original counterparty or a debt purchaser, the team’s focus is on maximising recoveries through the restructuring process. The team boasts significant experience of disputes arising from sovereign debt restructurings, litigation arising out of the unwinding of the estates of insolvent financial institutions, as well as the design and enforcement of schemes of arrangement.
The client roster includes the usual suspects: hedge funds, pension funds and European banks, but also insolvency office holders, family offices and re-insurers.
General commercial litigation
The team, which has experience in all major industry sectors and has developed particularly strong tech and media expertise, is a growing force and is now recognised as a powerhouse. Based in London, Hong Kong and Singapore, the team has experience in all major industry sectors. It works across various international jurisdictions and advises on a range of contentious issues. These include contractual, tortious, corporate and trust disputes. They also advise in breach of confidentiality cases, joint ventures and post-closing disputes, and an increasing number of internal investigations.
The group has witnessed an uptick in cases where arbitration is the chosen resolution mechanism. Again, the team is clear that a commercial approach is essential. Equally, an awareness of cultural nuances, practices and tactics can be the difference between a win and a loss.
The team has worked on cases with bodies including the London Court of International Arbitration, International Chamber of Commerce, International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, Singapore International Arbitration Centre, China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission, Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre, Dubai International Financial Centre, trade associations such as the Federation of Oils, Seeds and Fats Associations, The Grain and Feed Trade Association, London Maritime Arbitrators Association and the World Intellectual Property Organization, as well as ad hoc arbitrations, including ARIAS, the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators and UNCITRAL rules.
Renowned for its tenacity and commerciality, RPC’s IP team advises on disputes and transactions across many sectors, notably retail, luxury goods, media, technology, financial services and sport. Led by Jeremy Drew – who heads the broader IP/media/technology group – the team has a strong international focus, particularly in the US, Europe and Asia.
The media team at RPC is a genuine market leader, topping the directory rankings for many years. The defendant-focused team – led by Keith Mathieson – handles disputes involving all the leading media companies, from privacy and data protection complaints, to defamation, contempt and reporting restrictions issues. They have advised in some of the highest-profile media matters in recent years, including Leveson and phone hacking.
Technology is a major focus for RPC. The team handles domestic and international transactions and disputes for both suppliers and customers. Clients include tech giants, leading financial institutions, household-name retailers and media companies, as well as digital businesses and tech start-ups at the cutting edge. Recent work has spanned issues relating to data migration, disputed terminations, managing project transformations, cyber breaches and software disputes, operating across the full range of options, from management and turnaround of failing projects, to mediation, arbitration and court proceedings.
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RPC – the critics’ view
RPC’s ‘lawyers are excellent and they are always at hand to explain complex legal points’. The firm’s scope of work includes disputes involving corporate bonds, hybrid products, complex structured investment products, loan facilities and fraud. It has also been involved with increasing amounts of insolvency and restructuring work.
The Legal 500 2018
RPC ‘gives clients a great level of service and takes the time to get to know and understand clients’ business’.
The Legal 500 2018
- RPC ‘punches well above its weight’ in the area of competition litigation and has experience in commercial antitrust disputes, regulatory challenges and private actions, acting for claimants and defendants.
The Legal 500 2018
- Clients highlight the team’s pragmatism, saying that it is ‘solutions-focused, commercial and very keen to ensure its advice is tailored to the relevant audience’.
RPC’s contentious tax practice is ‘of a very high quality and covers a range of issues, from tax avoidance, to accelerated payment notices, to EU law’. It has significant capabilities in alternative dispute resolution and has made it a point to recruit practitioners with experience working for HMRC.
The Legal 500 2018
‘They are able to take big-ticket litigation in their stride, have an excellent work ethic and seem to thrive on the strategic aspects of litigation.’
- With experience representing mainland Chinese and international businesses, RPC is active in a range of disputes, often concerning mainland China, heard before both the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre and mainland Chinese centres.
The Legal 500 2018
- RPC fields ‘an excellent, responsive, cooperative and professional’ practice, which is led by the well-regarded David Smyth.
The Legal 500 2018
- Premier Law [a joint venture with RPC in Singapore] is recommended for insurance, reinsurance, marine and offshore energy, international trade and general commercial arbitrations.
The Legal 500 2018
IP, technology and media:
- RPC’s ‘outstanding’ and ‘client and business-minded’ team is headed by Jeremy Drew and is praised for its ‘detailed analysis’.
The Legal 500 2018
- RPC is one of the most active commercial litigation firms and has an outstanding pedigree when it comes to IP disputes. The team is highly commercial and really understands business priorities; it identifies practical solutions, which you can take back to the C-suite, and represents excellent value for money.
World Trademark Review 1000 2018
- ‘RPC are outstanding. They’re diligent and thorough but very client focused and meet client needs. The work has been to a very high standard, and the team is efficient and commercially minded.’
The rise of arbitration
Possibly as a consequence of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, the firm has noted a shift towards arbitration, including in sectors that have traditionally favoured litigation. ‘The strategy for resolving any dispute should be determined by the client’s unique commercial goals, not a firm’s internal silos,’ notes Elliott. ‘We don’t have silos.’ Big IT suppliers are also advocates, preferring the privacy that arbitration affords to the publicity of open court.
There is little doubt that third-party funding is bringing huge changes to the UK market and these seem almost entirely positive. Before funding, an SME could be bullied out of business by a larger defendant able to frustrate and delay. Merit-worthy claims are now more likely to be taken seriously if a third party is in the background. Group claimants that could not otherwise have their case considered may now have access to justice that was not available before, with the recent Royal Bank of Scotland case a perfect illustration.
Hibbert dismisses notions that unmeritorious claims will now be brought en masse: ‘Anyone who has gone thought the funding process will know it’s rigorous. It doesn’t mean unmeritorious cases. Why would funders put their money at risk?’
Indeed, RPC has itself entered into an association with well-known corporate finance firm Giltspur Capital to offer advisory, investigatory and legal solutions to clients in the German banking sector.
Organisations have huge challenges with data, from GDPR/privacy to cyber security. The new legislation and system vulnerabilities will mean organisations have to completely rethink their strategies for dealing with data. Cran sees the privacy and cyber security areas leading to an avalanche of disputes from regulatory actions through to technology customer/supplier disputes to group actions. Cases like these will need experienced litigators with deep technical knowledge and RPC are well positioned to win these mandates.