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Q&A: Signature Litigation’s Graham Huntley on potential mergers and the need for litigators to behave

In the middle of a monumental class action against RBS representing around 25,000 claimants, Signature Litigation founding partner Graham Huntley talks to Tom Baker about the firm’s co-operative structure, the market and the pressures facing commercial litigators in 2017.

Do you see the commercial litigation market growing? If so, why?

What we’re seeing is a market that is becoming more tailored to the needs of the client. There is a bedding down in the large international law firms of work that is appropriate for those players. At the same time, you’re seeing the bedding down of the niche firms who are operating in a symbiotic relationship with the large firms. Both of them growing. As they grow, they are propelling a general growth in litigation too. The commercial litigation product seems to be more appropriate for many than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

What is making litigation funding more prevalent?

We’re in the early days of litigation funding. Clients are enthusiastic about what it can do for them in terms of access to litigation opportunities. But there is a lagging appreciation of the responsibilities that go with being funded by third parties which perhaps not all corporates fully appreciate.

Why is litigation against banks in particular on the increase?

To some degree banks were seen to be “open season” post-financial crisis. In other senses they were exposed by regulatory reports that identified practices that were open to claims in civil courts. Then there is the legislation which allows more group actions to be brought against banks, in addition to litigation funding which provides a platform for those claims. The Magic Circle firms are growing to look after banks in a very sophisticated and institutionalised way, so you are seeing the niche firms becoming very adept and managing the interplay between client, funder and stakeholder. Niche firms are coming to be viewed as predominantly claimant operations, which I question especially for a firm like Signature.

How can you continue Signature’s impressive growth over the next few years?

All firms should have a priority of increasing the quality of the litigation product for clients. You should be growing the offering, with volume following on from that in that order. We’re going for steady growth, but growth of our offering first. We’re not going for massive growth by itself, if I could use an expression, it would be “steady and stable growth.”

In light of recent market news, would Signature ever consider a merger?

Who can say never? But it’s certainly not on our agenda. We are a co-operative, so it’s not easy to merge or be taken over. We run the firm for the members, meaning everyone who is employed in it. Co-operatives keep looking after their own people. Every member of the firm, whether they are a partner or the most junior support staff, has a fixed non-discretionary, proportionate, entitlement to the firm’s profits which is an immutable right that can’t be taken away.

What is the priority for commercial litigators over the next five to ten years?

The need for commercial litigators to maintain appropriate standards of behaviour and conduct in the face of overbearing business pressures on them. This includes the modern insecurities many partners have: the financial pressures of big business models, the mentality of winning at almost any cost, the huge opportunities generated from success and the fear of negative publicity. It troubles me that what used to be respectful jousting 30 years ago, has sometimes become more negative behaviour today. I hope that can be curtailed as we go forward.

Litigators also need to think about how they can try to help the patently under-resourced judiciary to do its best.

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