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Lawyer Nish Shetty is all fired up about dispute resolution

Mr Shetty is Clifford Chance's head of international arbitration and dispute resolutions in South-east Asia. Come August, his role will be expanded to cover the Asia-Pacific region.
Mr Shetty is Clifford Chance's head of international arbitration and dispute resolutions in South-east Asia. Come August, his role will be expanded to cover the Asia-Pacific region.ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN

Clifford Chance partner with 22-year career in the field says he enjoys rigour of the work

It is hard to imagine a more dramatic start to a legal career.

Lawyer Nish Shetty was cast into the deep end straight away, dealing with the fallout from the spectacular collapse of Britain's oldest merchant bank Barings.

That baptism of fire propelled him into a 22-year career in the field of dispute resolution.

Two decades on, Mr Shetty, 45, still enjoys the rigour and the "adversarial aspect" of this work.

"I enjoy the argument, I enjoy putting forward my viewpoints, I enjoy the oral advocacy," said Mr Shetty, now a partner at multinational law firm Clifford Chance.

He joined the London-based outfit seven years ago and is its head of international arbitration and dispute resolutions in South-east Asia. Come August, his role will be expanded to cover the Asia-Pacific region.

IMPORTANCE OF BEING SUCCINCT

You need to be able to articulate a point in as few words as possible because you are trying to convince a tribunal or a judge of something, and the longer you drone on, the less likely that person is going to pick up on what it is you are trying to say.

LAWYER NISH SHETTY

Mr Shetty recalled how he faced a "steep learning curve" in the first few years of his career, starting with the shocking collapse of Barings.

"When it is your first case, everything feels overwhelming at some level but also terribly exciting because it is all new to you," he said.

"The fact that it was one of the largest insolvency cases in history affecting the Singapore market obviously gave it a certain aura, and that made it even more exciting."

In 1995, rogue trader Nick Leeson single-handedly brought down Barings. The Singapore-based derivatives trader racked up hundreds of millions of British pounds in losses, wiping out the once venerable 233- year-old bank.

Leeson served jail time here for his role in the collapse.

The company liquidating the failed bank subsequently sued two accounting firms in Singapore that had audited Barings' numbers here - Deloitte & Touche and Coopers & Lybrand - for failing in their auditing duties on several occasions.

Mr Shetty was then with law firm WongPartnership, which was acting for Coopers & Lybrand, now part of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Observing senior lawyers who led the case left him with two valuable lessons that he still applies today.

First, the ability to "cut through the noise" to get to the core of the issue and the decisions that need to be made, and second, the need to be succinct.

"You need to be able to articulate a point in as few words as possible because you are trying to convince a tribunal or a judge of something, and the longer you drone on, the less likely that person is going to pick up on what it is you are trying to say," he said.

Another high-profile case which the National University of Singapore graduate worked on was the petition to dislodge the management from debt-ridden Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) by two creditor banks - Deutsche Bank AG and BNP Paribas. The court battle on the judicial management application went on for eight months.

Mr Shetty was acting for the two banks, among a group of trade and bank creditors and export agencies that took APP Group to task after it defaulted on a staggering US$16.5 billion in debt in 2001.

"The good thing about doing dispute resolution is that each case is different... You may be helping a bank one day, a manufacturing unit another day, a construction company or an oil and gas contractor."

In his upcoming role as head of litigation and dispute resolution for Asia-Pacific, Mr Shetty will oversee markets including Hong Kong, mainland China, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia.

As Asia continues to play a key role in driving the global economy and with cross-border deals rising, he believes the demand for dispute resolution work will only grow. Singapore and Hong Kong, in particular, with reputations as dispute resolution centres in the region, will benefit.

He said: "Singapore is on the world map for dispute resolution, especially arbitration, and now with the Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC), we do expect more cases to come into Singapore."

The SICC, designed to deal with transnational commercial disputes, was launched in January last year as part of a wider plan to position Singapore as Asia's dispute resolution hub.

Mr Shetty said some of his early cases defined his career path, leading him to focus on arbitration and insolvency work, and one of his core client groups today comprises banks and financial services firms.

The financial services sector worldwide has come under greater scrutiny since the financial crisis in 2008, and Mr Shetty pointed out that another change that the industry ought to prepare for is how technology will disrupt the business.

Within the legal sector, he noted that the advent of technology has been a game changer.

"Today, sitting at your desk, you can get the latest information on judgment from anywhere in the world. You have very sophisticated software... When I first started practice, the newest technology was a fax machine," he quipped.

The work that used to be done by three associates - for example, poring over a large number of physical documents - can now be handled by one associate with the aid of a computer, or a third-party service provider.

He said many law firms are studying changes in technology and the potential impact on the legal industry. In particular, Clifford Chance is working with "various institutions in the technology world" to devise solutions that will boost efficiency.

"A good example would be storage solutions, and the ability to store data in the cloud. We are already looking at things like that - artificial intelligence to analyse repeated patterns in contracts, what is important and what is not," Mr Shetty added.

Despite the growing influence of technology, he believes computers and automated processes will not steal a march on humans when it comes to dispute resolution, which still requires human interaction and analysis. "When you are trying to assess if someone has complied with obligations, it is not algorithms that will make you understand that. You still need to physically examine the conduct of individuals, and I don't see that changing any time soon."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2016, with the headline 'Lawyer who's all fired up about dispute resolution'. Print Edition | Subscribe