No time for a sandwich

Who said a life in the law was dull? Certainly not this month's resume writer, Christian Wells

Name: Christian Wells, partner in the insurance and reinsurance Group at law firm Lovells LLP.

Firms worked for? I spent my articles and the immediate period post-qualification with Waltons and Morse, joining Lovell, White and King in 1982.

Classes of cases with which you have been involved? My early career was founded on the shortcomings of underwriting agencies, both at Lloyd's and in the company market. Since then the principal areas of my work have been the technical side of run-offs, wordings and the perimeters of insurance and reinsurance.

When did you start in the legal insurance business? In the middle of 1979. At the time, Waltons and Morse were advisers to the Committee of Lloyd's on the contentious side and the market was suffering from a number of issues like computer leasing, so I was soon sucked in. In the September, the losses of the Sasse syndicate from a single binding authority reached £20m, for a time the names refused to pay, proceedings started and I spent much of the remaining 18 months of my articles on the one case.

What was the market like then? The Lloyd's Act of 1982 and the problems of asbestos claims were yet to come. There were a relatively small number of law firms with a serious insurance and reinsurance capability, and there were many more and generally smaller insurance businesses than today. There were many watering holes open all afternoon like the Rostrum Club, with displays of sandwiches that were dusted rather than eaten, for licensing reasons.

What is the hardest market you have known? I have seen three clear cycles in my time, with hard markets in (roughly) 1984 to 1986, 1993 to 1996 and 2002 to 2006. The length of each and work patterns suggest that the current market is the hardest of the three. When rates have been high for a while and money is plentiful, lawyers do not see many new disputes. When cash is tight, work arrives in waves, one is instructed to argue points almost regardless of merit and the word 'mediation' disappears from the vocabulary.

What was the softest market you have ever seen? One of the ways in which a lawyer can judge the softness of a market is the type of propositions on which one is asked to advise. The soft market of 1999 and 2000 was the softest I have seen, with underwriters willing to undercut banks on equivalent products despite having no collateral, for example.

What is the most interesting case you have been involved in and why? The most interesting case has to be the ERAS EIL Litigation, described by Lord Mustill as some of the most complex litigation to come before the Courts. For year after year, the participants in an environmental programme in the USA, which had given rise to huge losses, locked horns in an epic series of clashes with each other over who was going to bear what share of the final bill.

What is the strangest bit of business you've been involved with over the years? It was a personal injury claim in the docks. The injured stevedore claimed that he had lost the tip of his finger when a warehouse door he was opening stuck on its runner and sprang back. A reconstruction took place and, as the claimant pulled the door open, it jammed again at exactly the same point and sprang back with an enormous crash. Had he not already lost the tip of his finger, he would have done so now, and that was the end of the case on the facts.

What's the most eventful business trip you've ever been on? It was a visit to Cuba in 1985 when there was only one flight a week. I arrived to be told that the witness I most wanted to interview had fallen to his death from a crane the day before. I found as many other potential witnesses as possible and took statements from them. Despite being in a Communist country, I had the services of: the client's rep; the insurer's rep; a secretary; a translator; and a driver. When it came to getting the statements legalised, the Foreign Ministry official refused and wouldn't explain why. The insurer's rep observed that this was a hard currency claim for over a million dollars, so any shortfall resulting from the official's conduct was something for which he (the official) would pay personally. Rarely have I seen stamps applied so quickly.

What is the most exotic location reinsurance has brought you to? Having the elbow of my suit gnawed by a lion cub in South Africa.

If you hadn't been a lawyer, what other career might you have followed? If I failed my law exams, I said I would join the Merchant Navy. The spur was evidently enough.

What's your favourite insurance-related joke? A lawyer arranges to meet a client's claims manager for lunch at a pub of the latter's choice. After a couple of pints each and with the claims man ordering the third round, the lawyer (feeling that at least some ballast would be wise) suggests that it might be an idea to have a sandwich or two. "Oh no!" says the claims man, "You don't want to eat the sandwiches here, they're terrible."

What's the biggest challenge facing the reinsurance industry today? From the legal and regulatory perspective, the challenge for the industry remains to realise that the proverbial stitch in time saves nine.

What do you miss (if anything) about the old days? Time. The past 30 years have brought increased speed and quantity of both communication and information, but at the expense of quality and of slavery to IT.

What would be your advice to a young lawyer starting out today? Three things: set yourself high standards and strive to live up to them regardless of others; always put your client first, whatever the pressures of your own business; and maintain enough interests outside the law to keep your work in perspective.

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