Sunil Gadhia

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This was a BLD interview with Debo Nwauzu in May 2008. Read more about Sunil Gadhia in the Directory

Our Lawyer of the Month is Sunil Gadhia, who rose from being a Trainee Solicitor (or Articled Clerk as they were then known) at international law firm Stephenson Harwood to becoming its Chief Executive.

Sunil was born to Indian parents in October 1965 in Kericho, Kenya, which is the tea capital of Kenya, the world’s third largest producers of tea after India and Sri Lanka. Sunil came to England with his family aged five in 1970.

His earlier education had been at the John Ellis Community College in Leicester and he later read Law at Nottingham University, graduating in 1987. He did his Solicitor’s Finals at Lancaster Gate, London and in 1988 started his training contract at Stephenson Harwood. The firm was founded in 1875 and is now one of the UK’s top international law firms with over 80 partners, more than 500 staff worldwide and annual revenue in excess of £71 million. Sunil qualified as a solicitor in 1990 and became a commercial litigation partner at Stephenson Harwood seven years later.

In what was seen in some quarters as a surprise move but a popular one within the firm, Sunil was appointed the Chief Executive of Stephenson Harwood in 2004, aged only 38. He became Chief Executive following a difficult period for the firm which saw a drop in profits.  Today, the picture couldn't be more different with profits growing faster over the last three years than at any other law firm in the UK's top 100 law firms.  Underlying the firm's financial performance is a stream of work and lawyers rich in quality – Sunil's leadership should also not be under estimated; his style of hard work, commercial acumen and ability to forge relationships has been key. In his characteristically modest way, he said the firm had “taken a gamble” on appointing someone as young as him as CEO but it is work in progress as to whether the gamble pays off. He also credited “the people around me” for making his meteoric rise at Stephenson Harwood special.

Sunil has been involved in numerous complex and high-profile disputes in a range of industries, including advertising, agriculture, banking and capital markets, engineering, professional services and technology.  He also has experience in all forms of dispute resolution, including arbitration, litigation and mediation. Sunil’s clients include the aerospace company Smiths Group and his famous cases have included the Maxwell pensions litigation, 3i Group plc v Interactive Investor International, Banco Santander v Banque Paribas and currently Ixis -v- Terra Firma.

He was named by The Lawyer as one of the Hot Lawyers of 2004 and in 2006 he was named the Successful Solicitor of the Year by the Society of Asian Lawyers.

Sunil has a long history of pro bono work since qualifying as a solicitor. He is involved in the firm’s provision of free legal advice services at Camden Law Centre and at the Citizens Advice Bureau at the Royal Courts of Justice. He was a non-executive director of the Law Society Trustees Limited, which is responsible for managing and distributing the Law Society’s charitable funds. He was also Chairman and a volunteer legal adviser at Fulham Legal Advice Centre, a registered charity providing free legal advice through volunteer solicitors and barristers. In April 2003, Sunil was appointed to the Council of the Advertising Standards Authority.

When interviewed on India Rising TV, featured on You Tube, and asked to describe what “Indianness” means, he said it is being hardworking, having commercial acumen and making great use of networks.

He dismissed as “misguided” claims that clients are making unreasonable demands of their private practice lawyers as the clients “pay top dollar and they are entitled to expect fast turnover times and a top-notch service”.

On the issue of work/life balance, he thinks the buck stops with the partners and they have to show leadership. “There is also a balance to be struck between what associates contribute and what partners contribute. On this, there is nothing more demoralising for an associate than watching your partner trot off home as you contemplate another stint into the small hours.” He accepts that this is tough on partners but said: “It should be tough because it’s the price you have to pay, but it does not mean you don’t have a life as there are times where there is a lull.” On the effect of so much work on family life, again he accepts that “it’s tough on family life but the family has to be part of that original decision whether to accept the position or not as it pays the price and benefits from it!"

Below is our interview with Sunil:

BLD: Why did you choose a legal career?
SG:  My interest in law originated from when I was about 10 or 11 years old as I used to accompany my Dad to Leicester Law Centre whenever he had legal problems. I used to act as an interpreter. I flirted with banking and accountancy but always came back to law.

BLD: If you were to choose another role/profession other than law, what would it be and why?
SG: A footballer. I am an Arsenal fan and if I could do anything else, playing football would be unbeatable! I play football on Sunday mornings.

BLD: What was the best career advice you were given?
SG: Not from being told, but by watching different people on how they do things. I have learnt on the job and I have learnt that getting things done and not sitting on them is best. Watching others was a real learning curve. Also I have learnt about staying calm under pressure. Being involved as an Articled Clerk in the famous and long battle over the acquisition of Harrods between Lonrho's, Tiny Rowland and Mohamed Al Fayed, I saw the partners working extremely hard and long hours under an immense amount of pressure in a fast and complex case and yet remain calm under the circumstances. I found that amazing. 

BLD: What was the worst career advice you were given?
SG: I remember a litigation partner - no longer with us - who used to say: “Don’t do as I do, but do as I say.” I thought that was ridiculous!

BLD: What career advice would you give to others?
SG: In a very competitive profession, if you get these two things right then you can’t go wrong: first, go the extra mile for your clients and, secondly, cultivate relationships inside and outside the business. By doing this you will enjoy enduring relationships in a highly competitive industry.
BLD: Who is the person you most admire (dead or alive) and why?
SG: Nelson Mandela. His book, The Long Walk to Freedom, is an incredibly inspirational book. What I find amazing about him is that, imprisoned for more than two decades and for no good reason, he came out without a hint or trace of bitterness and he carried on contributing. How he did that is quite remarkable. 

BLD: What are you most passionate/happiest about?
SG: Leisure time – playing the piano, playing football and spending time with my family are all very valuable. 

BLD: What are your dislikes?
SG: I hate arrogance, idleness and egos. 

BLD: What was your worst moment as a lawyer?
SG: This was in 1993 when I was an associate litigator in the middle of a very big case. I asked my secretary to fax a very sensitive letter from my client to counsel, but she sent it to the other side. Thankfully, it did not affect the outcome of the case.  

BLD: Tell us your professional high point(s).
SG: I guess two come to mind. The first was the Maxwell pensions, as we were acting for the liquidators of one of the pension companies and the case led to hundreds of millions of pounds being recovered for the pension fund. This was a huge learning experience for me. The other high point was being made a partner three or four years later in 1997.  
BLD: What was the most famous/interesting case(s) you have handled to date?
SG: The Maxwell pensions case.

BLD: Any professional regrets?
SG: No, not yet!

BLD: How do you cope with your two big roles - CEO and Commercial Litigation partner?
SG: I have the right support and the right people in my litigation and management teams. I love both roles.

BLD: If you could rule the world for a day what would you change/do?
SG: Abolish emails! 

BLD: Tell us more about your family life?
SG: Balancing family life and my role as Chief Executive is a real challenge.  However, I'm lucky – I have a close knit family which is wonderfully supportive of my role.